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Facebook Promises Encrypted Messaging (and Privacy-Abusing Business as Usual)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has written a lengthy blog post with the wonderfully self-serving title, “A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking.” What Zuckerberg’s post really outlines, however, is the difference between messaging between small groups of people and “public social networking.” Zuckerberg focuses on the former, promising end-to-end encryption and ephemeral content and claiming that it’s a huge shift for Facebook.

But as analyst Ben Thompson of Stratechery points out, these changes would come in addition to Facebook’s current products, not in place of them. In essence, Facebook wants to have its cake and continue eating it (and your personal data) too. Although Facebook has a long history of lying about its privacy-abusing activities, I agree with Thompson that Zuckerberg is probably serious about improving the privacy of Facebook’s messaging products. Doing so doesn’t work against Facebook’s core business model, and it gives the company a response whenever Apple CEO Tim Cook beats the privacy drum.

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Comments About Facebook Promises Encrypted Messaging (and Privacy-Abusing Business as Usual)

Notable Replies

  1. Ben Thompson’s article is excellent. There are two other things that bother me about the announcement:

    Zuckerberg did not mention anything about a time frame or schedule for implementation of the encryption. He did when he announced the consolidation of Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook, which offer a tremendous increase in accurate, precision targeting opportunities for advertisers. And they announced recently that they are building a cryptocurrency exchange; it will be launched as part of WhatsApp. Facebook’s vectors for accumulating data will grow exponentially in the near term:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/28/technology/cryptocurrency-facebook-telegram.html

    There was nothing about if or how the company might be doing more to restrict hate speech, violent porn, etc. And I wonder if making communications more “private” and “encrypted” among smaller groups might 0 make it more difficult to screen and weed out objectionable content. Zuckerberg made a bid deal about how effective encryption has been in WhatsApp

  2. That’s a reasonable concern, and there’s no question encryption makes everything more protected. However, as long as Facebook retains the keys used for the encryption, it would always be able to decrypt the online communications when required by law. Apple resisted the FBI’s efforts to decrypt an actual iPhone, but will hand over iCloud data when required.

    My guess is that Facebook would act similarly. The only way to have truly secure online data storage is if you control your encryption key, and while that works with online backups, I can’t quite imagine how Facebook or the like would allow a random group to have its own encryption key.

  3. With regard to Facebook lying about its privacy-abusing activities, a few more headlines have just popped up:

  4. The cynic in me wonders why anybody even bothers being surprised by any of this. How many have stopped using FB because of their repeated privacy violations? The company faces near-zero consequences for their behavior so why would anybody expect them to ever change?

  5. Yeah, no surprises. I post this stuff because I think it’s important that people who aren’t in the know learn just how evil Facebook is. The only consequence that’s going to make any difference at all is users getting fed up and leaving.

  6. Simon

        April 20
    

    The cynic in me wonders why anybody even bothers being surprise by any of this. How many have stopped using FB because of their repeated privacy violations? The company faces near-zero consequences for their behavior so why would anybody expect them to change?

    I never signed up for Facebook, and I was shocked to find out how much they track people who were never members, as well as ex Facebook members. They track browsing history of members and non members on and off site:

    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-facebook-privacy-tracking/facebook-fuels-broad-privacy-debate-by-tracking-non-users-idUSKBN1HM0DR

    For non and ex members, like me, they create “shadow profiles,” though Zuckerberg & Co. hate this term:

    https://www.theverge.com/2018/4/11/17225482/facebook-shadow-profiles-zuckerberg-congress-data-privacy

    The US congress has been talking about regulation, but nothing has happened so far. What’s being currently under discussion doesn’t sound very comprehensive, but it would be better than nothing for the time being:

    https://www.cnbc.com/2019/04/09/new-senate-bill-would-ban-a-deceptive-practice-used-by-facebook-to-get-users-contact-data.html

    In addition to the EU’s GDPR, which is millions of miles ahead of the US, and Britain, Australia and other EU countries are expanding their regulations on privacy, hate speech and violence.

  7. FWIW, the FTC has an active investigation against Facebook right now, is talking about a multi-billion dollar fine, as well as holding Mark Zuckrberg personally responsible for data breaches. (Facebook is under a 2011 consent decree through 2031 that is supposed to prevent sharing user private data without consent.)

  8. ddmiller
    Doug Miller
    April 21

    FWIW, the FTC has an active investigation against Facebook right now, is talking about a multi-billion dollar fine, as well as holding Mark Zuckrberg personally responsible for data breaches. (Facebook is under a 2011 consent decree through 2031 that is supposed to prevent sharing user private data without consent.)

    This could be good news, but my cynical side can’t help but wonder how much lobbying will influence the outcome. But I also wonder if Zuckerberg will have to consider resigning his CEOship like Bill Gates did in the wake of the Microsoft antitrust Supreme Court ruling.

  9. Don’t get me wrong, Adam. I think it’s great you guys put a spotlight on this kind of stuff.

    I was rather thinking about the kind of oh-my-gosh-you-won’t-believe-what-FB-just-did kind of reporting I hear on the radio or TV around here. This is a you reap what you sow situation. So to all the sheep who keep uploading their content to FB (“that’s how I stay in touch with great aunt Mildred”) and help make Zuck richer and more invincible all I can say is, well, you had it coming.

  10. Ah, yes. I never pay attention to mainstream media apart from tech-literate outlets, so I have very little idea of what’s said there.

  11. And yet she appears to be a gigantic hypocrite. At the bottom of that very article I found this:

    @karaswisherFacebook

    You want to get Zuck to change his ways? Stop going to FB. Delete all your content there. Stop linking to it. The problem is YOU not doing that.

  12. It’s a tricky situation for people like Kara—on the one hand, you can easily argue that she should stop using Facebook. On the other hand, you can just as easily argue that she needs to have a Facebook account to understand what she’s criticizing, and while she’s at it, she may as well take the criticism straight to the source, and ensure that her 250,000 Facebook followers see it in that context. Plus, her leaving Facebook is a hit of one, whereas using Facebook to criticize Facebook would have a far, far greater impact.

    This is some of the reason why I haven’t deleted my Facebook account as well—as a journalist, I need to know and be able to check what I write about at times. And when we criticize Facebook, we want people on Facebook to see those criticisms—it doesn’t do nearly as much good to preach to the choir.

  13. So, essentially you’re arguing that her followers will take a step she is advocating for but not taking herself? Highly doubtful. Case in point, how many of her followers have left FB? How many people have left FB overall? Is it not more likely those people might leave if the holders of the accounts they follow left and those channels ceased to exist? At some point you have to assume leadership, because shoving people in a direction you aren’t willing to go yourself is just not a defendable position. Never has been. Peter Gabriel (or was it during the Phil Collins era?) sang about it though. :wink:

    I would also argue that you do not need to be part of the FB machine to recognize and denounce FB’s misconduct. This is not an intricate search for evidence fueld by sleuthing investigative journalists. The evidence has already been clearly amassed on the table right in front of us all long ago. As has the lack of meaningful action and consequences.

    No offense, but to me much of this all sounds like the excuses you’d get from heroin addicts. There’s always a plethora of good reasons why stopping right now is a really bad idea but rest assured they’ve got the situation under control. And so the circle continues. So maybe we should instead just offer thoughts and prayers.

  14. You’re entitled to your opinion, but I think it’s extreme. Facebook is in many ways evil, but it’s over the top to compare it to the abuses of apartheid or discussion of how to criticize it to excuses of heroin addicts.

    Persuasion take time and repetition. The invisible act of one person quitting Facebook wouldn’t be nearly as effective as having what people read in Facebook itself draw their attention to the company’s repeated abuses.

    There’s also an argument to be made that Facebook is too large to be hurt by even mass defections. Too many people get all their information from Facebook itself at this point to even realize such a thing was happening, and too many people are too uneducated or too apathetic to make such a change. The logical conclusion thus becomes that the only way to rein in Facebook’s abuses is through external regulatory means.

  15. So, essentially you’re arguing that her followers will take a step she is advocating for but not taking herself? Highly doubtful.

    It’s extremely doubtful that Swisher’s Facebook audience joined the network just because they wanted to read what she posts there, or that reading her posts are the only things they do or read there. The best way to reach and influence a targeted primary audience Of Facebook users is via Facebook itself.

    Case in point, how many of her followers have left FB? How many people have left FB overall? Is it not more likely those people might leave if the holders of the accounts they follow left and those channels ceased to exist?

    The vast majority of Facebook users join to communicate with family, friends and special interest groups. I’ll bet that of all Kara Swisher’s followers, fewer than a handful joined Facebook just to read and/or comment on her posts. TidBITS and TidBITS Talk Facebook ain’t.

  16. There’s also an argument to be made that Facebook is too large to be hurt by even mass defections.

    This is 100% true. Even if all of Facebook’s members unsubscribed, they’d still make billions from ad sales from the information they already accumulated and continue to track, from ex-members as well info as Messenger, Instagram, What’s App, etc. And there’s the information collected via their very successful Custom Audiences partnerships:

    https://www.facebook.com/business/learn/facebook-ads-reach-existing-customers

    And the ubiquitous Facebook Pixel and Like button:

    https://www.facebook.com/business/learn/facebook-ads-pixel

    https://developers.facebook.com/docs/plugins/like-button/

    Not long ago, they bought face tracking/3D and motion sensor/tracking apps not long ago, which will feed into Oculus VR and feed a lot more information into the mix.

    And if you log into Facebook and then use the same browser to wander around the web, Facebook is tracking where you are going and what you do when you get there.

    All this accumulated information is what makes Facebook such a desirable advertising and marketing platform. Check out how easy it is for advertisers to reach highly specific targets with Facebook’s Lookalike Audiences:

    https://www.facebook.com/business/ads/ad-targeting

    Too many people get all their information from Facebook itself at this point to even realize such a thing was happening, and too many people are too uneducated or too apathetic to make such a change. The logical conclusion thus becomes that the only way to rein in Facebook’s abuses is through external regulatory means.

    I totally agree, and I think the EU regulations are a good start. But I have my doubts that anything close to this will get passed in the US.

  17. At the Collision conference I was at, where I heard Kara Swisher talk, she was also interviewing Alex Stamos, who used to be Facebook’s chief security officer. His opinion was that breaking up Facebook wouldn’t really help since then there would just be three companies all doing the same sort of evil things (Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, I assume).

    He does have a point, I think, since the problem with Facebook is largely just that it’s huge, not that it’s using its ownership of Instagram and WhatsApp and the like to harm consumers. Breaking the company up might help competition slightly by giving smaller competitors a chance, but there’s no reason to assume that it would prevent the kind of abuses that Facebook has been caught red-handed in repeatedly.

    His suggestion was that Mark Zuckerberg should step down as CEO and appoint himself chief product officer so he could focus on the actual service, and Facebook’s board should then appoint a new CEO like Microsoft president Brad Smith who could then bring some responsibility to the company. From Smith’s Wikipedia page:

    On behalf of Microsoft, Smith has settled multibillion-dollar lawsuits with other companies and the European Union, has filed multiple lawsuits against the United States government to protect customer privacy, led efforts to bring broadband and technology jobs to rural America, and signed partnerships with the United Nations Office on Human Rights. He has led philanthropic efforts on immigration and education.

    I’m not sure I necessarily agree that self-policing by a new CEO would be sufficient, but Stamos certainly knows Facebook better than nearly anyone.

  18. I’ve left FB, I’ve severe doubts about Instagram and have a wary eye on WhatsApp. I don’t know any young people on this side of the Atlantic who use Facebook.

    Instagram however is another matter, the primary communications tool for young people with a good deal of Snapchat, though that seems to be waning a tad.

    Their parents generation have taken up WhatsApp with a vengeance however, it’s virtually omnipresent with group chats on everything from projects at work to neighborhood cleanups to (apparently and my idea of a nightmare) street WhatsApp groups, ie a group for the houses on your street, with the likes of ‘suspicious car outside number 7’ messages.

  19. It is a very good article. But personally, I was very surprised that none of the members of Congress brought up the fact that Facebook and other online content providers are skating through a big legal loophole in a US Federal Election Commission regulations that were last revised in 2002 that requires print and broadcast political advertising to clearly include the details on who is sponsoring the ad. Penalties for non compliance are strict:

    https://transition.fec.gov/pages/brochures/spec_notice_brochure.pdf

    Google does require political advertising to be identified as such and include details about who is paying for it:

    https://support.google.com/adspolicy/answer/9002729?hl=en

    Advertising on Apple News in the US is sold by NBC Universal, so I think it’s a safe assumption they follow US guidelines. (An interesting aside…Verizon is now selling ads on News outside the US.) And since publications can include ads from their advertisers in Apple News, I assume they have to.

    If I remember correctly, there was some discussion years ago about revising the FEC regulation years ago, but obviously nothing happened with it. And none of the politicians raised the issue yesterday, and it is a regulation, not a law that requires a vote to pass. So I think the whole shebang was just a lot of sound and fury and PR for the questioners. But hopefully it will signify something.

    Aaron Sorkin had what I think is a very good Op Ed in today’s New York Times:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/31/opinion/aaron-sorkin-mark-zuckerberg-facebook.html?searchResultPosition=1

  20. Facebook now does require information about who is buying a political ad and displays that info on the advertisement.

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