Facebook has been trying for a long time to make its Messenger app a hub for commercial activity. Its latest effort? To try and convince banks to offer services inside Messenger, according to a new report. Facebook pursued partnerships with major American banks—including Citigroup, Wells Fargo, J.P. Morgan Chase, and U.S. Bank—that would net it access to “detailed financial information about their customers, including card transactions and checking account balances,” writes The Wall Street Journal.
The news has sparked a backlash from critics worried about the extent of Facebook’s power and potential repercussions.
Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute and an outspoken critic of Facebook and the power of the tech giants, said the news was further evidence of how “concentrated tech power is moving us towards a dystopian social credit scoring system.”
But Wall Street has taken a very different view, and Facebook’s stock popped more than 3% on the news, with investors seemingly viewing it as another money-making opportunity for the company.
Facebook is reportedly considering showing users their bank balance or potential fraud alerts, as well as encouraging people to use its Messenger app more, if the partnerships ultimately go ahead.
However, speaking to TechCrunch after the Wall Street Journal’s report was published, a Facebook spokesperson said the company wasn’t asking for “financial transaction data,” but rather looking to improve Messenger with banking notifications, and that it was strictly opt-in.
The report comes as Facebook attempts to bounce back from a chain of scandals that has shaken the public’s faith in the tech company, especially the fallout from the revelation that political research firm Cambridge Analytica had improperly obtained Facebook data from as many as 87 million users. The social network also faces broader concerns around misinformation and fake news.
But renewed interest in Facebook’s dealings with banks comes at a time when many are pointing to its poor track record with privacy following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where people were duped into volunteering the personal info of them and their friends. Facebook hasn’t had a big traditional data breach where data was outright stolen, as has befallen LinkedIn, eBay, Yahoo and others. But users are rightfully reluctant to see Facebook ingest any more of their sensitive data for fear it could leak or be misused.
Cambridge Analytica has brought on an overdue era of scrutiny regarding privacy and how internet giants use our data. Practices that were overlooked, accepted as industry standard or seen as just the way business gets done are coming under fire. Internet users aren’t likely to escape ads, and some would rather have those they see be relevant thanks to deep targeting data. But the combination of our offline purchase behavior with our online identities seems to trigger uproar absent from sites using cookies to track our web browsing and buying.
Facebook’s probably better off backing away from anything that involves sensitive data like checking account balances until Cambridge Analytica blows over and it’s proven its newfound sense of responsibility translates into a safer social networking. But at least for now, it’s not slurping up our banking data wholesale.