Popular real estate apps have been quietly sharing data with Facebook, reportedly even when users didn’t log into or have accounts with the social network, raising questions about how much control consumers have over their personal information.
The flow of data from mobile apps to Facebook was detailed in a report from The Wall Street Journal, which singled out realtor.com. According to the report, realtor.com’s app sent Facebook information regarding the locations and prices of homes that a user viewed. The app also reportedly shared data on which listings the user favorited.
Realtor.com’s app was one of several subjected to the Journal‘s tests, which also found that the social network receives data even if a user isn’t logged into, or lacks entirely, a Facebook account. The report has since amplified concern among some industry observers that people searching listings have too little control over their data — some of which could provide clues about personal information such as incomes or savings.
But realtor.com is not the only real estate app that shares data with Facebook.
In an email Monday, a spokesperson for Zillow confirmed that the market-dominating portal shares “a very limited amount of information about our users’ home shopping activity with platforms such as Facebook to provide consumers with personalized and relevant advertising of homes that may interest them.”
“We only share with Facebook the information that’s necessary to provide tailored home shopping ads,” the spokesperson added. “We don’t share sensitive personal information with Facebook.”
Several other real estate companies and portals did not immediately respond to Inman’s request for comment.
These various privacy policies raise a number of questions, chief among them being who exactly receives this data and whether consumers — many of whom never read privacy policies or don’t understand their dense legalese language —really understand what’s going on.
In the case of realtor.com, the Journal reported, the app uses what’s called an App Event to share data with Facebook. On a page for developers, Facebook describes an App Event as an “action that takes place in your app or on your webpage such as a person installing your app or completing a purchase.”
“Facebook App Events allows you to track these events to view analytics, measure ad performance, and build audiences for ad targeting,” the page explains.
Realtor.com — which is owned by News Corp subsidiary Move Inc. — did not respond to Inman’s request for comment Monday, but told the Journal that the company follows the law and “clearly states how user information is collected and shared.”
Facebook also did not respond to Inman’s request for comment, but the company has been embroiled in privacy and data-related controversies for years now. Perhaps most notably, the company drew fire last year after analysis firm Cambridge Analytica managed to get the social network’s data while developing methods to influence voters. Lawmakers also grilled company founder Mark Zuckerberg over Facebook’s data practices during congressional hearings last April.
Within the industry, however, there appears to be a growing interest in protection for both consumers and their data. Real estate consumer advocate Bill Wendel told Inman Monday that consumers seem to be more interested in their data, in part because of “cascading stories” about breaches, such as the one involving Cambridge Analytica.
The National Association of Realtors also told Inman in a statement that it “supports data privacy practices that provide notice, are transparent, and protect customer data.” The organization also believes “consumers should know when their data is collected, while businesses should be transparent enough to inform a consumer how they plan to use that information.”
“Ultimately, all businesses must be responsible stewards of customer data, and NAR will continue to support data privacy policies that support this proposition,” the statement added.
Responding to the Journal‘s report in a Medium post Monday, Wendel wrote that consumers “would be surprised — maybe shocked — to learn how real estate apps track their personal data and sell them as leads.” He went on to describe several ways in which apps track and try to predict consumer behavior, and raised the possibility of conflicts of interest, such as in the case of Zillow’s iBuyer program.
Wendel’s point was that he hopes “this is where the investigative reporting and regulatory responses begin.”
“Hopefully, these practices underline the urgent need to address real estate and smart home use cases in the scope of national privacy legislation being considered by the US Congress,” he added.