For a long time, we’ve known that Facebook’s data handling policies leave a lot to be desired. There have been numerous scandals involving the social media company’s handling of private information in recent years, and these debates aren’t likely to end any time soon.
Facebook wants to know everything there is to know about you, and when you install one of its apps on your smartphone, it seems to want access to every folder on it. If you’re not willing to provide that access, you can’t install the apps. That’s the deal most of us make with Facebook when we decide to use it, and it will take years for the company to change the general public’s perception of its activities even if it goes on to start making pro-privacy moves.
One of the problems is that Facebook relies on advertising revenue to sustain itself. It builds profiles of us and then uses those profiles to allow advertisers to target us with specific products and services. Those profiles grow even larger when you use some of Facebook’s periphery services. Take its on-site online slots page like Rose Slots, for example. More than a million people ‘like’ that page and a good number of those people visit it regularly to play online slots. Facebook offers it as a more convenient alternative to going offsite and using a standalone online slots website, alongside Facebook and Twitter, players can find out information about Roseslots.com on the Rose Slots blog where they will share tips, lists, useful guides and research before you play their games, they might benefit from placing adverts with Facebook in the knowledge that you could be tempted to come and play online slots with them if you already play them there. Everyone benefits other than the person whose data is being exploited.
Facebook is very conscious of its reputation and has spent much of the past twelve months looking for ways to regain the public’s trust. One of its most recent initiatives is to begin encrypting all messages that are sent through its Messenger app, which until now have been unencrypted and so can be read by anyone at Facebook HQ. This new encryption program, if it goes ahead, will cover messages sent on Instagram as well as those sent on Facebook. While on the surface, that might sound like a good idea to the average Facebook user, the furor it’s caused in the past week is a reminder that sometimes, the social media company can’t do right for doing wrong. The plan has come in for heavy scrutiny in the United Kingdom, where the company has been accused of making it easier for criminals to communicate on the platform by evading detection.
The problem that British authorities have with the idea is that it would make it impossible for police or other agencies to gain access to private messages without a password for the account in question. The appropriate parties could currently obtain that information from Facebook by way of a warrant, but that will change if the messages are encrypted, and nobody other than the sender and the recipient can see them. Concerned campaigners have already pointed out that encryption will make the content of the messages unreadable to the company’s scanning algorithms, which look out for potentially harmful or abusive content – especially that which might be sent to children or vulnerable adults. If Facebook can’t see those messages, it can’t step in to prevent harm before it occurs. Facebook acknowledges that risk but also says that encryption is becoming the industry standard when it comes to communication tools and is a feature that most users expect of it.
The debate becomes ironic when you consider the fact that the company has also recently been in the press for what’s been seen as a loosening of its privacy measures when it comes to WhatsApp. WhatsApp messages have been encrypted for years – much to the displeasure of law enforcement agencies – and so conversations that happen through the app remain private unless the phone from which those messages were sent or received is directly accessed. Recently, Facebook introduced new terms of service, which would see more data being shared between WhatsApp and the main Facebook platform. Even though that information wouldn’t include the content of any messages, it was enough to result in a backlash from angry users who considered it to be a violation of trust. The fact that privacy measures are far laxer on Facebook Messenger – which many of them also use – didn’t matter. Enough users deleted their WhatsApp app and moved to alternative communication tools that Facebook was forced to think again about the idea and delay the proposed changes.
Ultimately, we’ve all been on the internet for long enough now to know that no data transmission is one hundred percent safe. There will always be leaks, there will always be breaches, and there will always be hacks. We could wake up any morning to find that someone has managed to gain unauthorized access to a platform we use regularly, and our passwords have been jeopardized. We shouldn’t look to Facebook or any other tech company to provide us with total protection. The best advice now is still the same as the best advice on the day you logged on to the internet for the first time. Be selective about how much information you give to who, don’t leave personal information in chat logs, and consider using a proxy payment service like PayPal rather than directly entering your banking information anywhere. Privacy is an issue for large tech companies to worry about, but it’s also our own responsibility.