How Facebook’s “privacy-focused vision” will further violate your privacy

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Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced a major strategy shift towards messaging and “privacy.” Don’t be fooled. It’s not about making you feel safer — at all.

At the center of this two-step are two different definitions of privacy.

When you think about privacy, you are thinking “I don’t want my private information shared.”

That’s not what Zuckerberg means. When he says “privacy” he means “We’ll encourage you to send more ‘private’ messages and make fewer public posts.” He still wants to sell ads against your profile which will emerge from those messages, which means he’ll be sharing information about them with advertisers.

To understand what I mean, consider the following messages that you, or anybody, might send.

“It’s only been three weeks, but think I’m pregnant.”
“I know we’ve been together for ten years, but I’m going to dump her.”
“Herb has been embezzling funds for years.”
“My husband pretends to be a liberal but I know he voted for Trump.”
“I’m so depressed that, sometimes, I think about suicide.”

“My boss hit on me and then squeezed my butt. Ugh.”
“If Sarah can get that raise, we’ll start looking for a house.”
“Mom is dying. I just can’t get my head around it, but I guess this is it.”

It’s hard to imagine making posts like this on Facebook or Instagram. Even if you posted only for your friends, you most likely wouldn’t do a post to all of them about being sexually harassed or who you think is embezzling. But you certainly might send these as private message.

And the next day after you send one of these messages, you will start seeing ads — on Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp, or random websites you visit — for baby stuff, apartment rentals, labor lawyers, psychiatric services, depression medications, realtors, or hospice care.

That is what Zuckerberg means by privacy.

What Zuck wrote

Zuck’s post is very long, but let’s look at some pieces of it and see if I’m right. Consider how it starts:

A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking

MARK ZUCKERBERG·WEDNESDAY, MARCH 6, 2019

My focus for the last couple of years has been understanding and addressing the biggest challenges facing Facebook. This means taking positions on important issues concerning the future of the internet. In this note, I’ll outline our vision and principles around building a privacy-focused messaging and social networking platform. There’s a lot to do here, and we’re committed to working openly and consulting with experts across society as we develop this.

Over the last 15 years, Facebook and Instagram have helped people connect with friends, communities, and interests in the digital equivalent of a town square. But people increasingly also want to connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room. As I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms. Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally, which is why we build social networks.

Today we already see that private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups are by far the fastest growing areas of online communication. There are a number of reasons for this. Many people prefer the intimacy of communicating one-on-one or with just a few friends. People are more cautious of having a permanent record of what they’ve shared. And we all expect to be able to do things like payments privately and securely.

Public social networks will continue to be very important in people’s lives — for connecting with everyone you know, discovering new people, ideas and content, and giving people a voice more broadly. People find these valuable every day, and there are still a lot of useful services to build on top of them. But now, with all the ways people also want to interact privately, there’s also an opportunity to build a simpler platform that’s focused on privacy first.

I understand that many people don’t think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform — because frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services, and we’ve historically focused on tools for more open sharing. But we’ve repeatedly shown that we can evolve to build the services that people really want, including in private messaging and stories.

I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever. This is the future I hope we will help bring about.

We plan to build this the way we’ve developed WhatsApp: focus on the most fundamental and private use case — messaging — make it as secure as possible, and then build more ways for people to interact on top of that, including calls, video chats, groups, stories, businesses, payments, commerce, and ultimately a platform for many other kinds of private services.

This privacy-focused platform will be built around several principles:

Private interactions. People should have simple, intimate places where they have clear control over who can communicate with them and confidence that no one else can access what they share.

Encryption. People’s private communications should be secure. End-to-end encryption prevents anyone — including us — from seeing what people share on our services.

Reducing Permanence. People should be comfortable being themselves, and should not have to worry about what they share coming back to hurt them later. So we won’t keep messages or stories around for longer than necessary to deliver the service or longer than people want them.

Safety. People should expect that we will do everything we can to keep them safe on our services within the limits of what’s possible in an encrypted service.Interoperability. People should be able to use any of our apps to reach their friends, and they should be able to communicate across networks easily and securely.

Secure data storage. People should expect that we won’t store sensitive data in countries with weak records on human rights like privacy and freedom of expression in order to protect data from being improperly accessed.

Over the next few years, we plan to rebuild more of our services around these ideas. The decisions we’ll face along the way will mean taking positions on important issues concerning the future of the internet. We understand there are a lot of tradeoffs to get right, and we’re committed to consulting with experts and discussing the best way forward. This will take some time, but we’re not going to develop this major change in our direction behind closed doors. We’re going to do this as openly and collaboratively as we can because many of these issues affect different parts of society.

Many people are skeptical that Zuckerberg will basically turn Facebook into WeChat or a more elaborate version of WhatsApp. But that’s not what he said. I am going to take him at his word, that Facebook wants to make these sorts of messaging easier, and will put more effort into that and less effort into its public platform.

So imagine for a moment a world of social messaging where your messages go to the people you want, are encrypted, disappear from view, aren’t visible to strangers, work with other Facebook messaging systems, and aren’t visible to tyrants.

Even if Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp delivers perfectly on that promise, it can still observe your behavior; combine it with your behavior on other sites; profile you; target you with ads on Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp; and sell that targeting profile to advertisers off of Facebook. None of what Zuck wrote changes any of that. In fact, the more you message, the more intimate details Facebook will know, and the better the targeting will be.

Does any of this post make you feel more secure? A few more excerpts:

This sense of privacy and intimacy is not just about technical features — it is designed deeply into the feel of the service overall. In WhatsApp, for example, our team is obsessed with creating an intimate environment in every aspect of the product. Even where we’ve built features that allow for broader sharing, it’s still a less public experience.

It will feel private, until you see an ad. Your friends won’t be watching, but Facebook will.

People expect their private communications to be secure and to only be seen by the people they’ve sent them to — not hackers, criminals, over-reaching governments, or even the people operating the services they’re using.

There is a growing awareness that the more entities that have access to your data, the more vulnerabilities there are for someone to misuse it or for a cyber attack to expose it. There is also a growing concern among some that technology may be centralizing power in the hands of governments and companies like ours. And some people worry that our services could access their messages and use them for advertising or in other ways they don’t expect.

End-to-end encryption is an important tool in developing a privacy-focused social network. Encryption is decentralizing — it limits services like ours from seeing the content flowing through them and makes it much harder for anyone else to access your information.

Do you trust this? If Facebook can’t see your messages on WhatsApp, how will it make money from advertising? This is not a promise, it is a “feeling.” Facebook has made many statements like this in the past, but when a violation happens, it’s always some kind of exception or loophole.

For example, when you send a message, Facebook’s client (Messenger, Instagram messaging, or WhatsApp) could see it, identify markers in it, and encrypt it. Then “Facebook” (the mothership) doesn’t see your actual entity. But it knows what you’re talking about.

Embracing the Zuckerberg definition of privacy will indeed make the services more private. You won’t be so exposed to the public — you’ll be safer from that. You’ll only be exposed to the entity known as Facebook. And we all know we can trust Facebook, can’t we?

3 responses to “How Facebook’s “privacy-focused vision” will further violate your privacy

  1. Those of us who use Facebook for marketing purposes see this for what it really is–a ploy to get people to migrate to the next big ad platform Facebook is trying to develop. The inventory of traditional ad space in the newsfeed is saturated and they are scrambling to develop the next ad frontier–messaging. As you mentioned, there is no getting away from Facebook seeing everything we post everywhere on the platform, aggregating that, and selling it to advertisers. I am not sure where this is leading, but it will be interesting to watch.

  2. Facebook is a surveillance capitalist and we, the “users” are its raw materials for producing their most valuable product—human behavior prediction—and selling it in the behaviors futures market.

    So no, data privacy in the true sense is farthest from Zuck’s mind.

  3. Being the target of ads is sneaky but not insidious. I am more worried about private companies like Facebook working with the government to Big Brother citizens as Google does with China.

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