Swedish Radio created fake pharmacy - reveals how Facebook stored sensitive information

3:19 min
  • Facebook say that their system is built to find and delete sensitive information, for example about people's medication, illnesses and sex lives.

  • By creating a made-up online pharmacy that has been visited by fictitious customers, Swedish Radio News can show that the social media giant saves sensitive information.

  • After hundreds of thousands of data transfers to Facebook, the social media giant has still not answered whether its systems can filter words in Swedish.

Each day Facebook receives a large amount of information from other businesses who want to advertise via them. However, some information, for example, that of people's sex life, illnesses and medicines, is so sensitive that Facebook themselves say that they don't want it.

If the advertiser still passes on information like that, then Facebook has a filter which is constructed to find and delete the information that could be sensitive, and Facebook will then alert the advertiser. This is what Facebook told Swedish Radio News after an investigation revealed how two Swedish pharmacy chains had shared information about its customers to the social media giant.

To see whether this was true, reporters from Swedish Radio News created a made-up online pharmacy, and activated the same advertising tools from Facebook which were used by the real pharmacies before Swedish Radio's reporters had started to investigate them.

Swedish Radio News' reporters also built a program which, automatically, thousands of times a day, visited the made-up pharmacy, filled in e-mail addresses and telephone numbers, searched for symptoms and illnesses, but unlike the other pharmacies that Swedish Radio News had previously reported about, it also passed on information about prescription medicines.

After four days, 25 000 fake visits from customers had been registered with Facebook. But they had neither shut down nor warned the owners of the made-up pharmacy - Swedish Radio News' reporters. When the reporters log into their account, they see that Facebook has stored the type of sensitive information that they say their filter is built to delete again and again.

The question that the reporters then asked themselves was whether or not Facebook even has a filter that works in the Swedish language. One of the pharmacies that Swedish Radio reported on say that they cannot find any warnings from Facebook on data transfers that have taken place. The other has not wanted to answer the question. According to state investigators in the USA last year, Facebook only filtered in English.

Swedish Radio's reporters have on numerous occasions asked Facebook how well their filter works in Swedish. They have not answered, eventually the reporters got hold of the company's head of policy in Sweden, Janne Elvelid.

- I am going to get on the case and see what we can do, he says.

Does your filtering system even work in Swedish at all? the reporters ask.

- I can't answer that. I cannot say how it works as I do not know the technology on that level, Janne Elvelid replied.

When the Swedish Radio News reporters shut down their made-up online pharmacy, Facebook had registered over 200,000 visits from customers. When Facebook replies to the reporters, they do not answer their questions. But in an email they emphasize that advertisers have a responsibility to not pass on sensitive information.