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Facebook under criminal investigation for selling user data: report

One analyst says Facebook's pivot is part of an effort to ramp up competition against rivals like Snapchat which use ephemeral messages
JOEL SAGET (AFP/File)
US federal prosecutors are conducting an investigation into the social network's handling of user info

Facebook is reportedly under federal criminal investigation for its business ties with more than 150 of the world’s largest technology firms involving deals where companies gained access to personal details of the social media giant’s hundreds of millions of users.

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that a grand jury in New York has subpoenaed information from at least two major smartphone makers about such arrangements with Facebook.

Regulators, investigators and elected officials around the world have already been digging into the data sharing practices of Facebook which has more than two billion users, according to the report.

“We are cooperating with investigators and take those probes serious,” a Facebook spokesman said in a statement. “We’ve provided public testimony, answered questions and pledged that we will continue to do so.”

The social network's handling of user data has been a flashpoint for controversy since it admitted last year that Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy, used an app that may have hijacked the private details of 87 million users.

Zach Gibson (GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/File)

Facebook has shared limited amounts of user data with smartphone makers and other outside partners to enable its services to work well on devices or with applications. Regulators, and now prosecutors, appear intent on determining whether this was done in ways that let users know what was happening and protected privacy.

The California-based social network has announced a series of moves to tighten handling of data, including eliminating most of its data-sharing partnerships with outside companies.

The focus of the grand jury probe was not clear, nor was when it started, according to the Times, which cited unnamed sources.

Meanwhile, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has fewer and fewer countries where he can travel freely, as he may face subpoenas to appear before several different governments - including Canada and the United Kingdom.

"If Mark Zuckerberg came to the U.K. we would serve a summons on him, and if he refused to accept that summons then we could start contempt proceedings against him," Damian Collins, the chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the U.K. Parliament told CBS News in February.

- Massive outage adds to woes -

Facebook appeared to be back in operation Thursday after a massive outage affecting its applications around the world, creating fresh woes for the social network leader under fire for its handling of sensitive user data.

The outage affected users for some 12 hours in most areas of the world, with the biggest impact in North America and Europe, according to the tracking website downdetector.com, which suggested that most Facebook users were back to normal.

Facebook, however, offered little information on the extent or cause of the outage, which is believed to be the worst ever for the internet giant that reaches an estimated 2.7 billion people with its core social network, Instagram and messaging applications.

Facebook acknowledged the outage on Wednesday while saying it did not appear to be the result of a denial-of-service attack. The hashtag #FacebookDown was a popular theme on Twitter.

In some cases, the apps could be accessed but would not load posts or handle messages.

A tweet from Facebook's Instagram account said early Thursday, "Anddddd... we're back," without offering details. 

In November, a Facebook outage was attributed to a server problem, and a September disruption was said to be the result of "networking issues."

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