Narrative: Facebook Threatens Privacy

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    Narrative: Facebook Threatens Privacy (Jan 11, 2017)

    Written: January 11, 2017

    Any ad-based business model entails certain compromises when it comes to user privacy – there is an inverse relationship between how effectively ads can be targeted and how much users’ privacy is respected. Facebook is perhaps the best example of this tradeoff, and its genius is that users willingly hand over all kinds of data about themselves, from their relationship status to their age, and from their interests to the brands they like. But of course Facebook also collects other data on their users, including third party data it buys in.

    However, this data collection and its use is entirely within the realm of Facebook’s ad platform – in theory, individual employees of Facebook don’t look at individuals’ data, and it’s largely machines leveraging the data to target ads. There have, however, been other cases of Facebook deliberately or inadvertently leaking user data to other users, though those are mostly in the past at this point. These included making default sharing of posts broader than users expected, sharing location data without users’ knowledge, and more. But Facebook seems to have learned a lot from these incidents, and seems to have taken a much more privacy-friendly stance of late.

    Having said all that, there are still new privacy issues at Facebook – its attempt to merge WhatsApp and Facebook user data for better targeting on the Facebook side has rolled out without too much fuss in the US, but European regulators have not viewed it as kindly, and in some cases Facebook has been prevented from using this data.

    As long as there are ad-based business models, the companies that make use of them will have to deal with privacy concerns. And as long as Facebook makes well over 90% of its revenue from ads, they’ll continue to be a major feature of coverage of the company too.

    Facebook Faces Increasing Regulatory Barriers Around the World (Sep 18, 2017)

    The New York Times has a long piece which dives deeply into the growing regulatory barriers facing Facebook in many of the markets where it operates, including the markets where it has the most headroom in terms of user growth. China is a particular focus, and the story there should be familiar based on earlier items I’ve linked to (see all previous posts tagged with both Facebook and China). But the piece also talks about Europe, whose strong privacy laws have already caused Facebook problems in individual countries, and the fact that Europe and not the US is often the model other countries around the world look to in regulating telecoms and technology markets. I saw this very clearly when I was a regulation analyst early in my career and the US was always the outlier, while the rest of the world tended to adopt European-style regulation in various areas a few years after Europe did so. That could put severe limits on Facebook’s normal business model of collating all the data created by users across its various apps and using it to target advertising. In other countries, it’s having to work uncomfortably closely with unpleasant regimes which would limit their citizens’ freedom of expression. Perhaps we shouldn’t wonder that Facebook seems to have pivoted from emphasizing user growth to focusing on community building – that user growth is potentially going to become considerably tougher, and the community building focus makes a great platform for arguing that Facebook is a force for good in countries where it’s allowed to operate unfettered.

    via The New York Times

    Instagram Hack Appears to be Far More Widespread Than Originally Thought (Sep 1, 2017)

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    Instagram Says Error Allowed Hackers to Obtain Celebrity Email Addresses, Phone Numbers (Aug 30, 2017)

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    Facebook is Testing Using Location to Serve Ads to People Who Visited Stores (Aug 15, 2017)

    Based on observations of the new method in the wild, Marketing Land says Facebook appears to be testing showing people ads on Facebook based on the physical retail stores they have recently visited, leveraging location data from the Facebook app. If people already think that being retargeted on Facebook based on shopping on other sites is creepy, this is going to blow their minds, especially because many people may not realize that Facebook is even able to track their location when they’re not actively using the app. That background location tracking is used to power some services in the app, and in the iOS privacy settings, Facebook can be set only to use location while in the app, but there doesn’t seem to be a similar option on Android, where all I can see is a single on-off location toggle per app at an OS level. None of this should surprise us, however: the name of the game in advertising is targeting, and the more available the better as far as these companies are concerned. As long as there’s some disclosure somewhere of what’s being gathered and why, and consumers have an opt-out option, they’ll feel they’re covered. But between Snapchat’s recent moves in the opposite direction and this testing by Facebook, it feels like we may be about to wade into our first real set of privacy concerns around major social networks in several years, after companies pulled back significantly a few years back following something of a backlash. Users have been like the proverbial frogs in boiling water since, with the erosion of privacy so subtle and incremental as to never present a single step big enough to warrant objections, but I suspect that may be about to change.

    via Marketing Land

    Facebook Beats User Privacy Lawsuit, Fights Gag Order over Government Searches (Jul 3, 2017)

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    Facebook’s AI assistant will now offer suggestions inside Messenger – The Verge (Apr 6, 2017)

    This change was reported by The Information a while back but has now been confirmed by Facebook: the M hybrid human-virtual assistant Facebook was testing last year has now been released in a much reduced and entirely AI-based role inside of Messenger. That makes a ton of sense and it sounds like Facebook has been successfully testing this feature for a while with positive user response. The only worry I’d have is that it could be seen as invasive or intrusive, both in the sense of invading users’ conversations uninvited and in the sense that it will appear to be “listening” to users’ conversations for key words and phrases that will trigger that intervention. Privacy isn’t a one-size-fits-all thing – everyone has their own preferences and tolerances for the tradeoffs online services can sometimes entail – so I’d expect to see a range of reactions from delight to outrage.

    via The Verge

    Facebook Messenger update helps you keep tabs on your friend’s location – Mashable (Mar 27, 2017)

    Google introduced its own location-sharing feature last week, but Facebook’s is far more limited – it works within the context of a Messenger interaction, and only for an hour at a time, which feels a good bit less prone to accidental over-sharing. It also feels more useful in the messaging context, where you’d be likely to share messages with someone about meeting up, than in a Maps app, which might mean dipping out of a conversation to check the location (even if it might be useful when meeting at a new spot). As I mentioned last week, it’s interesting to see location sharing making a comeback when both Google and Facebook had previously backed away from this kind of thing over privacy concerns – that suggests a certain confidence over privacy issues that wasn’t there a few years ago, although both companies still seem to be approaching this more narrowly than in the past.

    via Mashable

    How Messenger and “M” Are Shifting Gears — The Information (Feb 22, 2017)

    Facebook’s M assistant in its original conception was a virtual assistant a la Siri or Cortana which lived in Messenger, but one which was being trained by humans while it was available to a very limited number of users. Over time, it became clear that the process of handing off from humans to AI for the broad set of tasks M was supposed to be able to handle wasn’t going well, and it appears Facebooks somewhat went back to the drawing board on that. At the same time, the bot strategy within Messenger hasn’t gone well either, with limited developer and user adoption. Facebook now seems to have decided to combine these two failing projects into a new one which it presumably hopes will go better – M will pop up from time to time in Messenger conversions between friends to offer to complete certain tasks based on context. That’s probably a better, narrower use case for an AI assistant, but it also has serious potential to be creepy to users having what they will perceive to be a private conversation. And herein lies one of the biggest challenges with AI and bots – in order to be useful, they need to insert themselves into private conversations, which means they need to listen in on private conversations, much like Google’s advertising within Gmail has always been context based. In theory, only computers are eavesdropping, but that doesn’t stop people from objecting. I’m not convinced yet that this is the right answer either for Facebook’s M or bot strategies.

    via The Information

    Introducing the New Privacy Basics – Facebook (Jan 26, 2017)

    Facebook’s busy week for news continues. This update to Facebook’s privacy mini site is timed to coincide with Data Privacy Day later this week, but it’s a useful reminder of how far Facebook has come on privacy. Facebook has always had two distinct privacy issues. One is the same that affects all ad-based companies: gathering lots of information about users and using it to target advertising. The other, however, has always been more Facebook-specific, which is that users have often been unaware of how broadly their content was being shared with other users and potentially the general public. It’s come a long way on both points, but especially the latter one. The new Privacy Basics site has lots of information about how to exercise more control over how posts get shared and with whom, and Facebook has done a nice job here. The fact that there are 32 separate interactive guides is perhaps unintentionally funny – protecting your privacy on the service can still be a complex proposition – but at least Facebook is now effective at walking users through some of that complexity. And in general it now does much better at being transparent and reminding users about how they’re sharing, and most importantly seems to have stopped deliberately or merely carelessly getting users to share more broadly than they intend to.

    via Facebook