Call it a battle brewing or a big storm on the horizon, the data collection, use, and distribution by Facebook Inc. seems to be reaching epic proportions. There is a power and control struggle going on that may involve you (if you are a Facebook user on any type of device). It almost certainly involves your government (whatever part of the world you live in). And, of course, the corporate governance team of Facebook – and especially the face and founder of FB, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO.
The struggle for control of individual and collective data gleaned by Facebook is very real. There have been serious privacy concerns and breaches throughout Facebook’s 15-year history. Think of the global publicity around the potential rigging of the US and UK elections, connections with Russia, the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, and various other stories of data breaches.
More recently, deserved attention and focus has been on the lack of control around stopping the uploading and sharing of extreme content. In March 2019, Facebook video live-streamed content from a body camera worn by a gunman who was involved in the shooting of 89 people in Christchurch, New Zealand, 51 people died. Facebook subsequently removed the content. However, the raw footage was viewed and shared widely by FB users in messages and across other platforms.
Ever since the inception of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg has become known for placing the locus of control on users. Zuckerberg’s posts and presentations drive home the party line that users have control and it is up to them how much information they share. A user’s ability to adjust Facebook’s privacy settings has between tweaked and made more transparent over the years.
In May 2019, Facebook announced a future shift to a “privacy-focused communications platform.” Interestingly, this follows Facebook’s April announcement that it was setting aside US$3 billion to cover the costs of a potential investigation by the US Federal Trade Commission into privacy. However, the fact remains that the personal information and patterns of behavior people place on the platform are used to drive advertising dollars. Privacy on the platform is something many Facebook commentators remain skeptical about.
The Spread of the Facebook Empire
According to Facebook’s latest user stats as of March 31, 2019, there were 2.38 billion active users on Facebook every month. On average, 1.56 billion people were active on a daily basis in March 2019. However, the actual picture is much, much bigger. The wider Facebook group is no longer just a social media platform easily recognizable by its logo with the lower case “f”.
The Facebook group includes:
- Facebook Products: There are many other transparently Facebook-associated products and apps. For instance, Messenger, Watch, and Portal.
- Other Social Media and Messenger apps: Instagram and WhatsApp are two of the larger platforms and messaging apps acquired by Facebook.
- Virtual Private Network Services: Looking for a VPN to protect your privacy? Onavo, now owned by Facebook, ultimately shares all your so-called private web traffic and use of other apps back to the company.
There are many more apps, online services, electronics, and artificial intelligence brands under the Facebook umbrella. However, the picture is clear. Facebook is the parent company of a number of services and apps. All are or have the potential to be, collecting a phenomenal amount of information about people around the world.
In terms of physical spread, as of March 31, 2019, Facebook had 20 offices in the United States and 47 international offices. Approximately 37,700 full-time employees work for the company. Yes, that’s the population of a small city in itself. Toiling away in the business of electronic commerce, communication, and data management. All paid for by advertising dollars tailored to who we are and what we do online. What we like, comment, react to, and browse in moments of boredom or procrastination on the platform.
Facebook is banned in China, Iran, and North Korea. It has faced temporary bans and has certain types of content blocked or censored in many other countries.
Facing Up to Facebook Privacy
Facebook’s data collection and online privacy is a hot topic, and for good reason. Even the least tech-savvy person has some inkling that whatever we do online somewhere, someone can somehow see where we are and what we are doing. It’s no secret. Any interaction in the digital world leaves a trace — no surprises there. Nor is it any great surprise that the mammoth social networking platform has faced public scrutiny and challenges. Questions have long arisen on how Facebook gathers and uses people’s personal information.
However, in the early days of Facebook’s public years, possibly only tech gurus and social scientists really paid attention to privacy concerns. Those concerns have been there though. Privacy issues and Facebook’s use of personal data have been under discussion for many years. As have founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg’s responses. It’s only been in the last few years, with increased attention from big news outlets, that there has been more public attention drawn to the issue. Quite possibly, we are only at the beginning of gaining an insight into the extent of Facebook’s data collection and money-making savvy.
Even non-Facebook users, or non- or infrequent internet users (yes, there are still some around!) are now likely to have an awareness of Facebook’s association with recent controversies and scandals around data collection. Mainly thanks to mainstream media publicity.
A Selection of Facebook’s Public Privacy Follies
In the past few years, questions about privacy and the use of people’s data on Facebook has become a political topic. Politicians around the globe are drawing attention to not only Facebook’s use of data, but there are also serious concerns over the nature of content that slips publically onto the platform.
Demand for Facebook to answer to, and review, their policies and procedures is nothing new. Over the relatively short span of Facebook’s 15-year history so far, there have been many questions around the ethics and morality of the use of people’s private information. Some eyebrow-raising matters include:
- 2004: The first version of Facebook launched to college students with assurances that users could limit who could see their information. Why the hand-on-heart promises? The first Facebook site followed an earlier version of a similar concept for college students. The site was subsequently taken down after an article in Harvard’s student newspaper This piece discussed the appropriateness of a feature for rating the attractiveness of fellow students. What’s more, Zuckerberg admitted to obtaining the uploaded pictures of students by hacking into other sites. Student mistake, or foundations of a new business model?
- 2007: Advertising software Beacon was launched and subsequently found to be capturing activity. This included sending details of the user’s financial transactions and purchases from third-party sites to Facebook. It also made the information visible to a user’s other Facebook friends. Initially, with only an opt-out feature, it was later changed to be an opt-in system. Facebook discontinued Beacon in 2009 as part of a settlement following a class action lawsuit.
- 2011: Facial recognition technology was first introduced. Its purpose, ostensibly, was to help users identify friends in other photos. When Facebook initially tried to roll out facial recognition in Europe around the same time, alarm bells rang. Regulators questioned the security and privacy of this level of artificial intelligence. More recently, questions are being raised regards how much facial recognition scanning goes on behind the scenes. Even if a user switches their personal settings off on the front end.
- 2013: Facebook was reported to be involved in surveillance by the PRISM program of the US National Security Administration (NSA). Since then, Facebook has been more transparent around information and data sharing as requested by government agencies. This varies by country, but it can occur for the purpose of investigating crimes.
- 2018: It came to light that British political data consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, had obtained the data of millions of Facebook users from the US and the UK without their consent. This information was subsequently used for political purposes. In the UK, Facebook has received a fine of GB£500,000. In the United States, Facebook is facing litigation over various related privacy issues.
- 2019: Investigative reporting by The Wall Street Journal has identified certain smartphone apps that are sending personal data, including personal health stats, to Facebook. It has been announced that the passwords of hundreds of millions of Instagram users had been stored unencrypted
The global political pressure to regulate what data Facebook and other giants such as Google have been able to track and retain is intensifying. The current New York Governor has ordered a directive for further investigation into the transmission of the health data as revealed by the Wall Street Journal’s investigation. A Republican Senator has proposed a new Privacy Bill that would prevent companies from profiling and tracking.
Facebook’s Reactions and Responses
Trawling through Mark Zuckerberg’s public comments around Facebook privacy issues over the past 15 years is an interesting exercise. Right from day dot, in relation to the original Harvard student platform in 2003, when Zuckerberg has crossed the line with the sharing of information and content, there have been apologies, and blame put back on users (after all, it’s up to you what you share online, right?) There have been promises to remedy and overcome any user concerns ever since the launch to the public in 2004.
Ironically, even Zuckerberg himself has personally faced the shame of having his own private thoughts made public. Business Insider, in 2010, released details of a private message exchange between Zuckerberg and a friend during the early iterations of the social networking platform, originally developed for Harvard students. In the leaked messages, Zuckerberg, when asked how he received emails and personal information from fellow students, is reported to have written: “People just submitted it. I don’t know why. They ‘trust me’. Dumb f**s.”
Zuckerberg was subsequently quoted in by the New Yorker in 2010, saying “he’d grown up and learned a lot” since details of his own leaked private messages from the early days went public. In a previous public post to his own Facebook timeline, he admitted the Beacon software was a mistake.
Zuckerberg’s recently published opinion piece in The Washington Post appears to be a mix of damage control and trying to maintain a semblance of control. Interestingly, this is somewhat in contrast to pieces in The Guardian and elsewhere about Facebook’s earlier attitude to EU General Data Protection Regulations. In the March 2019 Washington Post article, Zuckerberg talks about the importance of legislation and a global framework for regulating privacy and data protection, along with moderating harmful content and protecting election processes. A true change of direction for the future or a control tactic?
Find Out What Facebook May Know About You
There’s a lot of obvious stuff you know that Facebook has about you, your real name and date of birth, for a start. Then, depending on how much of yourself you share online, they may know a great deal about where you live, work, play, went to school and so on.
It’s also somewhat obvious that Facebook is going to know what other apps you use on Facebook. What might not be obvious to many users, though, is how they can profile you for their advertisers. Nowadays, you can take a look at some of it yourself to open yourself up and expose who you are even further into the Facebook world – or shut it down. Two things you can check for yourself include:
- Your interests: Over time, Facebook builds a profile of you based on your interests, relationships with others, and what pages and ads you’ve randomly clicked on in your travels around Facebook. Check out yours. You might discover, via the summarized data that Facebook does let you see, that you have been showing an interest in all kinds of topics. Depending on where you go in and around Facebook, you might find they’ve identified and flagged that you care about matters relating to your gender, your healthcare, your political affiliations and more.
- Advertisers and businesses: FB advertisers can upload existing email and subscription lists to Facebook with your details to get their ads targeted directly to your FB page. Have you ever randomly received a pertinent ad from Facebook out of the blue? Nope, it’s not serendipity, synchronicity or even signs you may be a little on the paranoid side.
If you want to test it out to see which company’s adverts have been generated based on your email address, download your Facebook content and check through the Ads sections in the settings. Read through the trail of all your private instant messages again in a digestible format.
It’s interesting stuff — and arguably a violation of privacy that you presently, in reality, have little control over.