Facebook hasn’t had such good headlines for a while. It’s “pivoting to privacy!” Say hello to a “‘privacy-focused’ Facebook!”
No, and no. What Mark Zuckerberg describes in his “privacy-focused vision for social networking” Facebook post recently is in many ways not pro-privacy at all.
That’s not to say Facebook isn’t moving towards a limited kind of privacy. By focusing more on messaging one-on-one or within small groups, it will be placing greater emphasis on conversations that are private from wider networks of people. The use of strong encryption—already the default in WhatsApp and an option in Facebook Messenger—keeps the contents of communications private from governments and indeed from Facebook itself.
But what Zuckerberg’s post is really about—the integration of WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram’s infrastructure—couldn’t be less privacy-friendly.
First problem: many people signed up to WhatsApp and Instagram, which Facebook went on to buy, without wanting their information to be assimilated into the Facebook hive-mind.
Indeed, in Europe a condition of Facebook’s WhatsApp acquisition was that Facebook would refrain from doing that—the company ended up with a $122 million fine for lying to antitrust regulators on that point. The German competition authorities have already warned Facebook about its latest integration moves, which will be illegal in the EU without clear, voluntary consent from users.
The integration of Facebook’s various messaging services will obviously allow people to communicate across those platforms, which may introduce greater convenience, but it will also allow Facebook to build more accurate profiles of their users, for ad-targeting purposes.
Zuckerberg may talk about the safety benefits of strong encryption, but those benefits only extend to the contents of people’s messages, not the associated metadata that tells Facebook who is talking to whom, and when. This is extremely valuable profiling information—the fuel of what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.”
In the encryption part of his essay, Zuckerberg treads on some very fragile ground. “In the last year, I’ve spoken with dissidents who’ve told me encryption is the reason they are free, or even alive,” he says with a great deal of chutzpah—Facebook has only just been caught out using phone numbers, which people submitted to lock down their accounts’ security, as data to make those people easier to identify on the network.
“Encryption is a powerful tool for privacy, but that includes the privacy of people doing bad things,” he continues. “We are working to improve our ability to identify and stop bad actors across our apps by detecting patterns of activity or through other means, even when we can’t see the content of the messages, and we will continue to invest in this work.” Again, protecting the privacy of message contents does not stop other types of privacy invasion, whether for good or for bad reasons.
So there’s a real danger of misinterpreting what Zuckerberg is promising in his post—and not just because his track record on privacy promises is thoroughly dismal.
However, I’d like to end on a positive note, as there is one point in Zuckerberg’s essay for which he should be unequivocally congratulated: the part about secure data storage, and how Facebook refuses to deploy it in “countries that have a track record of violating human rights like privacy or freedom of expression.”
“If we build data centers and store sensitive data in these countries, rather than just caching non-sensitive data, it could make it easier for those governments to take people’s information,” he writes. “Upholding this principle may mean that our services will get blocked in some countries, or that we won’t be able to enter others anytime soon. That’s a trade-off we’re willing to make.”
He’s not naming names here, but the obvious reference points here is Russia, which have strong data localization laws that are ostensibly about protecting citizens’ privacy, but most likely aimed at keeping citizens’ data close to state intelligence’s grubby mitts.
Russian regulators have long threatened to block Facebook if it won’t adhere to the country’s data localization law—an issue that is increasingly annoying them.
Perhaps we can expect to see Facebook exit Russia in the near future, rather than betray its users, and for that Mark Zuckerberg really does deserve a pat on the back. For the rest of his post, though, not so much.