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If you've been observing the continual chain of debacles at Facebook since the Cambridge Analytica scandal started making headlines in 2017, then you've probably picked up a lot about how the social network's advertising model works. For those who haven't, there are generally two kinds of ads: Those that induce demand for a product, and those that respond to a perceived demand.

The kind that responds to demand needs a lot of customer data to make accurate guesses about a potential customer's desires (and anxieties), and Facebook has historically used the data in your profile to get results. That's more or less spelled out in the fine print of the privacy policy, but it's becoming apparent that Facebook's appetite for your data goes far beyond the confines of the social network itself.

SEE: 5 things you can do in 5 minutes to boost your internet privacy

A few days ago, the Wall Street Journal delivered a bombshell report indicating that a sizeable number of health apps have been automatically sending certain health statistics from your device into Facebook's waiting arms, including your body weight and even your menstrual cycle, apparently in the interest of assisting the social network with its ad targeting.

The apps identified by the Journal are Flo Period & Ovulation Tracker, Instant Heart Rate: HR Monitor, Realtor.com, Breethe: Sleep & Meditation, Weight Loss Fitness by Verv, BetterMe: Weight Loss Workouts, BetterMen: Fitness Trainer, Trulia Real Estate, Lose It!, Get Fit: Home Fitness & Workout and Glucose Buddy.

This process does not require you to have the Facebook app installed on your device, and you don't need to have an account on the social network. As soon as the data in the health app is recorded, it is sent to the social network.

However, the Journal also reports that several of the apps investigated for its previous story have now shut off the data spigot, including the heart rate monitor and ovulation tracker.

This data is purportedly gathered into batches to anonymize it before sending it along to advertisers, but there are still compelling privacy concerns. There are also no settings in these apps to stop them from sending this data. And once Facebook acquires app data, there is no method for the app user to get the social network to delete it.

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In some cases, the Journal reports that the apps in question do not explicitly mention a customer data transmission arrangement with Facebook or any other party. The social network says that this lack of transparency is explicitly forbidden by company policy, but there are still open questions about whether these apps are being financially compensated for this data, and by whom.

The social network also says that it explicitly forbids apps from sending it this type of data, so it's unclear why it did not previously identify the transmission of this data and put and end to the practice before the Wall Street Journal's report.

Takeaways

  • The Wall Street Journal produced several reports over the weekend that chronicled nearly a dozen apps that automatically send sensitive user data to Facebook, even if the user does not have a Facebook account or the Facebook app installed on their device.
  • According to the Journal, the eleven apps sending user data were Flo Period & Ovulation Tracker, Instant Heart Rate: HR Monitor, Realtor.com, Breethe: Sleep & Meditation, Weight Loss Fitness by Verv, BetterMe: Weight Loss Workouts, BetterMen: Fitness Trainer, Trulia Real Estate, Lose It!, Get Fit: Home Fitness & Workout and Glucose Buddy.
  • The makers of the heart rate and ovulation apps said that they have stopped sending this data, in response to the Journal's report. As For Facebook, it says that it forbids apps from sending it health data, and that such apps are supposed to notify their users if any data will be sent to the social network.

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Tom McNamara is a Senior Editor for CNET's Download.com. He mainly covers Windows, mobile and desktop security, games, Google, streaming services, and social media. Tom was also an editor at Maximum PC and IGN, and his work has appeared on CNET, PC Gamer, MSN.com, and Salon.com. He's also unreasonably proud that he's kept the same phone for more than two years.