At a Senate hearing this week in which US lawmakers quizzed tech giants on how they should go about drawing up comprehensive Federal consumer privacy protection legislation, Apple's VP of software technology described privacy as a “core value” for the company.
” We want your device to know everything about you but we don't think we should ,” Bud Tribble told them in his opening remarks.
Facebook was not at the commerce committee hearing which, as well as Apple, included reps from Amazon, AT& T, Charter Communications, Google and Twitter.
But the company could hardly have constructed such a claim had it been in the room, given that its business is based on trying to know everything about you in order to dart you with ads.
You could say Facebook has' hostility to privacy‘ as a core value.
Earlier this year one US senator wondered of Mark Zuckerberg how Facebook could run its service dedicate it doesn't charge users for access.” Senator we operate ads ,” was the virtually startled response, as if the Facebook founder couldn't believe his luck at the not-even-surface-level political probing his platform was getting.
But there have been tougher moments of scrutiny for Zuckerberg and his company in 2018, as public awareness about how people's data is being ceaselessly sucked out of platforms and passed around in the background, as fuel for a certain slice of the digital economy, has grown and grow — fuelled by a steady procession of data violates and privacy scandals which provide a glimpse behind the curtain.
On the data scandal front Facebook has reigned supreme, whether it's as an' oops we just didn't think of that' spreader of socially divisive ads paid for by Kremlin agents( sometimes with roubles !); or as a carefree host for third party apps to party at its users' expenditure by silently hovering up info on their friends, in the multi-millions.
Facebook's response to the Cambridge Analytica debacle was to loudly claim it was' locking the platform down ‘. And try to paint everyone else as the rascal data sucker — to avoid the obvious and awkward fact that its own business functions in much the same way.
All this scandalabra has kept Facebook execs very busy with year, with policy staffers and execs being grilled by lawmakers on an increasing number of fronts and issues — from election interference and data misuse, to ad transparency, hate speech and abuse, and also directly, and at times closely, on consumer privacy and oversight matters.
Facebook shielded its founder from one sought for grilling on data misuse, as UK MPs investigated online disinformation vs republic, as well as examining wider issues around consumer control and privacy.( They've since recommended a social media levy to safeguard society from platform power .)
The DCMS committee wanted Zuckerberg to testify to unpick how Facebook's platform contributes to the spread of disinformation online. The company send various reps to face questions( including its CTO) — but never the founder( not even via video connection ). And committee chair Damian Collins was withering and public in his criticism of Facebook sidestepping close questioning — saying the enterprise has displayed a “pattern” of uncooperative behaviour, and” an unwillingness to engage, and a desire to hold onto information and not disclose it .”
As a outcome, Zuckerberg's tally of public appearances before lawmakers this year stands at simply two domestic hearings, in the US Senate and Congress, and one at a meeting of the EU parliament's conference of presidents( which switched from a behind closed doors format to being streamed online after a revolt by parliamentarians) — and where he was heckled by MEPs for avoiding their questions.
But three conferences in a handful of months is still a lot more political grillings than Zuckerberg has ever faced before.
He's going to need to get used to awkward questions now that lawmakers have woken up to the power and risk of his platform.
What has become increasingly clear from the growing sound and frenzy over privacy and Facebook( and Facebook and privacy ), is that a key timber of the company's strategy to fight against the rise of consumer privacy as a mainstream concern is misdirection and cynical exploitation of valid security concerns.
Simply set, Facebook is weaponizing security to shield its erosion of privacy.
Privacy legislation is perhaps the only thing that could pose an existential menace to a business that's entirely powered by watching and recording what people do at vast scale. And relying on that scale( and its own dark pattern design) to manipulate permission flows to acquire the private data it needs to profit.
Only robust privacy statutes could bring Facebook's self-serving house of cards tumbling down. User growth on its main service isn't what it was but the company has shown itself very adept at picking up( and picking off) potential competitors — applying its surveillance practices to crushing rivalry too.
In Europe lawmakers have already tightened privacy oversight on digital businesses and massively beefed up penalties for data misuse. Under the region's new GDPR framework compliance violations can attract fines as high as 4% of a company's global annual turnover.
Which would mean billions of dollars in Facebook's instance — vs the pinprick penalties it has been dealing with for data abuse up to now.
Though fines aren't the real point; if Facebook is forced to change its process , so how it harvests and mines people's data, that could knock a major, major pit right through its profit-center.
Hence the existential nature of the threat.
The GDPR came into force in May and multiple investigations are already underway. This summer the EU's data protection supervisor, Washington Post to expect the first outcomes by the end of the year., told the
Which entails 2018 could result in some very well known tech giants being hit with major fines. And — more interestingly — being forced to change how they approach privacy.
One target for GDPR complainants is so-called' forced consent‘ — where consumers are told by platforms leveraging powerful network consequences that they must accept giving up their privacy as the' take it or leave it' price of accessing the service. Which doesn't exactly smell like the' free choice' EU law actually requires.
It's not just Europe, either. Regulators across the globe are paying greater attention than ever to the use and abuse of people's data. And also, hence, to Facebook's business — which gains, so very handsomely, by exploit privacy to build profiles on literally billions of people in order to dart them with ads.
US lawmakers are now immediately asking tech firms whether they should implement GDPR style legislation at home.
Unsurprisingly, tech giants are not at all keen — arguing, as they did at this week's hearing, for the need to ” balance ” individual privacy rights against” freedom to innovate “.
So a lobbying joint-front to try to water down any US privacy clampdown is in full effect.( Though also asked this week whether they would leave Europe or California as a result of tougher-than-they'd-like privacy statutes none of the tech giants said they would .)
The state of California passed its own robust privacy statute, the California Consumer Privacy Act, the summer months, which is due to come into force in 2020. And the tech industry is not a fan. So its engagement with federal lawmakers now is a clear attempt to secure a weaker federal framework to ride over any more stringent country laws.
Europe and its GDPR plainly can't be rolled over like that, though. Even as tech giants like Facebook have certainly been seeing how much they can get away with — to force a expensive and time-consuming legal fight.
While' innovation' is one oft-trotted angle tech firms use to argue against consumer privacy protections, Facebook included, the company has another tactic too: Deploying the' S' term — security — both to fend off increasingly tricky questions from lawmakers, as they finally get up to speed and start to grapple with what it's actually doing; and — more broadly — to keep its people-mining, ad-targeting business steamrollering on by greasing the tube that keeps the personal data flowing in.
In recent years multiple major data misuse scandals have undoubtedly created consumer awareness about privacy, and set greater emphasis on the value of robustly securing personal data. Scandals that even seem to have begun to impact how some Facebook users Facebook. So the risks for its business are clear.
Part of its strategic response, then, looks like an attempt to collapse the distinction between security and privacy — by utilize security concerns to shield privacy hostile practices from critical scrutiny, specifically by chain-linking its data-harvesting activities to some vaguely invoked” security intents”, whether that's security for all Facebook users against malicious non-users trying to hack them; or, wider still, for every engaged citizen who wants democracy to be protected from fake accounts spreading malicious propaganda.
So the game Facebook is here playing is to use security as a very broad-brush to try to defang legislation that could radically shrink its access to people's data.
Here, for example, is Zuckerberg responding to a question from an MEP in the EU parliament asking for answers on so-called' darknes profiles'( aka the personal data the company collects on non-users) — emphasis mine 😛 TAGEND
It's very important that we don't have people who aren't Facebook users that are coming to our service and trying to rub the public data that's available . And one of the ways that we do that is people use our service and even if they're not signed in we need to understand how they're using the service to prevent bad activity .
At this point in the meeting Zuckerberg also suggestively referenced MEPs' concerns about election interference — to better play on a security fear that's inexorably close to their hearts.( With the spectre of re-election looming next spring .) So he's making good employ of his psychology major.
“On the security side we think it’s important to keep it to protect people in our community, ” he also said when pressed by MEPs to answer how a person who isn't a Facebook user could delete its shadow profile of them.
He was also questioned about shadow profiles by the House Energy and Commerce Committee in April. And use the same security justification for harvesting data on people who aren't Facebook users.
” Congressman, in general we collect data on people who have not signed up for Facebook for security intents to prevent the kind of scraping you were just referring to[ reverse searches based on public info like phone numbers ],” he said.” In order to prevent people from rubbing public datum … we need to know when someone is repeatedly trying to access our services .”
He claimed not to know ” off the top of my head” how many data points Facebook holds on non-users( nor even on users, which the congressman had also asked for, for comparative purposes ).
These kinds of exchanges are very telling because for years Facebook has relied upon people not knowing or actually understanding how its platform works to keep what are clearly ethically questionable practices from closer scrutiny.
But, as political attention has dialled up around privacy, and its become harder for the company to simply deny or fog what it's actually doing, Facebook appears to be evolving its defence strategy — by defiantly arguing it simply must profile everyone, including non-users, for user security.
No matter this is the same company which, despite maintaining all those shadow profiles on its servers, famously failed to spot Kremlin election interference going on at massive scale “in ones own” back yard — and thus failed to protect its users from malicious propaganda.
Nor was Facebook capable of preventing its platform from being repurposed as a conduit for accelerating ethnic detest in a country such as Myanmar — with some genuinely tragic repercussions. Yet it must, presumably, hold shadow profiles on non-users there too. Yet was apparently unable( or unwilling) to use that intelligence to protect actual lives…
So when Zuckerberg invokes overarching” security intents” as a justification for violating people's privacy en masse it pays to ask critical questions about what kind of security it's actually purporting to be able deliver. Beyond, y'know, continued security for its own business model as it comes under increasing attack.
What Facebook indisputably does do with' shadow contact information ‘, acquired about people via other means than the person themselves handing it over, is to use it to target people with ads. So it employs intelligence harvested without consent to make money.
Facebook corroborated as much this week, when Gizmodo asked it to respond to a study by some US academics that showed how a piece of personal data that had never been knowingly provided to Facebook by its owner could still be used to target an ad at that person.
Responding to the study, Facebook admitted it was ” likely” the academic has been demonstrated the ad” because someone else uploaded his contact information via contact importer “.
” People own their address volumes. We understand that in some cases this may mean that another person may not be able to control the contact information someone else uploads about them, ” it told Gizmodo.
So essentially Facebook has finally admitted that consentless scraped contact information is a core part of its ad targeting apparatus.
Safe to say, that's not going to play at all well in Europe.
Basically Facebook is saying you own and oversight matters your personal data until it can acquire it from someone else — and then, er , nope!
Yet given the reach of its network, the chances of your data not sitting on its servers somewhere seems very, very slim. So Facebook is essentially invading the privacy of pretty much everyone in the world who has ever use a mobile phone.( Something like two-thirds of the global population then .)
In other contexts this would be called spying — or, well,' mass surveillance'.
It's also how Facebook constructs money.
And yet when called in front of lawmakers to asking about the ethics of spying on the majority of the people on the planet, the company seeks to justify this supermassive privacy intrusion by suggesting that gathering data about every phone user without their permission is necessary for some fuzzily-defined” security purposes” — even as its own record on security really isn't seem so shiny these days.
It's as if Facebook is trying to lift a page out of national intelligence agency playbooks — when governments claim' mass surveillance' of populations is necessary for security purposes like counterterrorism.
Except Facebook is a commercial company , not the NSA.
So it's only fighting to keep being able to carpet-bomb the planet with ads.
Profiting from darknes profiles
Another example of Facebook weaponizing security to erode privacy was also confirmed via Gizmodo's reportage. The same academics received the company employs phone numbers provided to it by users for the specific( security) purpose of enabling two-factor authentication, which is a technique intended to make it harder for a hacker to take over an account, to also target them with ads.
In a nutshell, Facebook is exploiting its users' valid security fears about being hacked in order to make itself more money.
Any security expert worth their salt will have spent long years encouraging web users to turn on two factor authentication for as many of their accounts as possible in order to reduce the risk of being hacked. So Facebook exploiting that security vector to boost its earnings is truly awful. Because it runs against those valiant infosec endeavors — so dangers eroding users' security as well as trampling all over their privacy.
It's just a double whammy of awful, nasty behavior.