In Essays, Innovation

Facebook faces ongoing and growing scrutiny for its abuses of user privacy, not to mention of the truth. Last week, its CEO said it would explore offering communications tools that were private, secure, and then evaporated after being read or viewed (the quality is called ephemerality).

“It’s a statement of the principles that we think are necessary to build this privacy-focused social platform,” said Mark Zuckerberg in a Wired interview.

No, it’s a ruse, for at least 5 reasons:

First, assuming people can chat as privately as it suggests (or that we users might expect), much if not most of the data on the platform will likely stay public, and certainly remain searchable and exploitable by Facebook. Remember, the privacy issue isn’t about people hiding from one another but rather Facebook monetizing our every visit, click, and post.

Calling its imagined social platform “privacy-focused” is like dubbing a cheeseburger and fries “healthy” because the plate is garnished with an orange slice.

Second, while those private messages might remain private (again, a big if), there’ll still be all that behavioral surplus data associated with them: monitoring when messages are sent, to whom, their length and frequency are only some of the ways Facebook could use those conversations to reach insights that could be monetized. I bet it could even guess what was in the messages if it had enough of them to study.

Plus, all the other not-so-supposedly-private activities will go on unabated, allowing Facebook to feed its ongoing need for more data on its users.

Third, there’s no way to keep private messages private after they’ve been sent. A simple screen grab or cut-and-paste could give extended life to messages deserving the quickest deaths. It might not seem like this type of abuse should be considered Facebook’s responsibility, but shouldn’t the platform that enables and encourages a behavior bear some culpability for those outcomes?

To suggest otherwise would be to say “social platforms don’t violate privacy, people do.” We’ve heard a similar excuse from the gun lobby.

Fourth, when messages evaporate, do they really disappear? What about the servers through which they travel and/or are stored, even ephemerally? If users can hide archives, because they’ve been told it helps protect their privacy, are that data still visible to Facebook and its corporate minions? You can guess those answers based on Facebook’s historic “principles.”

Which brings me to the fifth reason: If it’s true that Facebook has no financial model for a private messaging service that is absolutely and truly private, either it invents some heretofore unimagined financial plan that rejects the intrusions of surveillance capitalism — i.e., the very premises upon which its financial existence depends — or the solution it ultimately offers isn’t as private as we’d expect.

Both ideas can’t be true, no matter how good they (and we) have gotten at using Orwellian doublethink when it comes to describing the tradeoffs of social technologies.

My money is on the offering touting privacy, but otherwise delivering the same old data exploitation model that has little to do with true privacy.

Facebook is not about to quit you, baby.

[This essay originally appeared at A Cross of Silicon]
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