Amazon exec challenges Facebook on privacy

Sarah Syed and Oliver Sachgau

A senior Inc. executive used a conference on Monday in Munich to challenge Facebook Inc.’s record in protecting users’ privacy.

“If you don’t pay for the product, you are the product,” Werner Vogels, Amazon’s chief technology officer, told Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications, at the Digital Life Design conference.

Standing in the audience, Vogels — who introduced himself as working for a “small bookshop” — asked Clegg how Facebook could claim to protect users if many weren’t aware of how their data is being used.

“I think there are things Facebook could do,” to make its relationship with users more explicit, Clegg responded. “Unlike you, I believe an advertising business model where the user doesn’t have to pay is a very ingenious and good thing.”

Both companies have come under scrutiny for violating users’ privacy. Speakers using Amazon’s Alexa virtual-assistant collected audio snippets from users and played them to employees hired to help train its voice-recognition software, Bloomberg has reported. Amazon has said that it takes privacy seriously and that select employees listen to only a very small fraction of Alexa requests to improve the service.

Facebook has come under fire for giving third parties access to user data, particularly in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Last year, it agreed to pay a record $5 billion fine to the Federal Trade Commission to settle a probe stemming from that controversy, where an outside researcher collected personal data on tens of millions of Facebook users without their consent, and then sold that data to a consultancy working with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.