Skip to main content

Facebook wanted banks to fork over customer data passing through Messenger

Facebook wanted banks to fork over customer data passing through Messenger


The dark side of customer service chatbots

Share this story

Illustration by William Joel / The Verge

For years, Facebook has publicly positioned its Messenger application as a way to connect with friends and as a way to help customers interact directly with businesses. But a new report from The Wall Street Journal today indicates that Facebook also saw its Messenger platform as a siphon for the sensitive financial data of its users, information it would not otherwise have access to unless a customer interacted with, say, a banking institution over chat.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which as many as 87 million Facebook users’ personal information was packaged and sold to a data mining firm, Facebook is still reeling over the unintended side effects of its growth-at-all-costs mindset and its unabated hunger for ever-more personal data from its 2.2 billion-person user base. The company is currently trying to regain user trust following the scandal, as well as reckon with its current influence on worldwide election processes, the news industry, and the spread of false and dangerous misinformation that has led to real-world violence in India, Mynamar, and elsewhere.

Facebook pushed banks to create chat bots that would share financial data

In this case, the WSJ report says not only did the banks find Facebook’s methods obtrusive, but the companies also pushed back against the social network and, in some cases, moved conversations off Messenger to avoid handing Facebook any sensitive data. Among the financial firms Facebook is said to have argued with about customer data are American Express, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo.

The report says Facebook was interested in helping banks create bots for its Messenger platform, as part of a big push in 2016 to turn the chat app into an automated hub of digital life that could help you solve problems and avoid cumbersome customer service calls. But some of these bots, like the one American Express developed for Messenger last year, deliberately avoided sending transaction information over the platform after Facebook made clear it wanted to use customer spending habits as part of its ad targeting business.

In some cases, companies like PayPal and Western Union negotiated special contracts that would let them offer many detailed and useful services like money transfers, the WSJ reports. But by and large, big banks in the US have reportedly shied away from working with Facebook due to how aggressively it pushed for access to customer data.

In a statement given to WSJ, a Facebook spokesperson said, “Like many online companies, we partner with financial institutions to improve people’s commerce experiences, like enabling better customer service, and people opt into these experiences.” The company “emphasized to partners that keeping people’s information safe and secure is critical to these efforts,” and that “that has been and always will be our priority.”