Blog Post

Why Facebook Home bothers me: It destroys any notion of privacy

23-remake-of-path-menu One of the great things about attending Facebook’s events is that one gets to see Mark Zuckerberg mature as a chief executive and hone his presentation skills. And today, he didn’t disappoint in his ability to spin the media corps. It was all claps for “four colors on HTC First” and ideas “inspired” by the likes of Amazon Kindle (ads) and Path. But what he did most brilliantly was obfuscate the difference between an app (Home), the user experience layer and the operating system.

Zuckerberg did that for two reasons: First, to buy his company time to build a proper OS that will come to us in dribs and drabs and then will wash over us suddenly, like a riptide. And secondly, to convince people that “Home” is just like any other app. Unfortunately, Facebook’s Home is not as benign as that.

In fact, Facebook Home should put privacy advocates on alert, for this application erodes any idea of privacy. If you install this, then it is very likely that Facebook is going to be able to track your every move, and every little action. It is a future I wrote about a few days ago, and let me explain using that very same context.

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The new Home app/UX/quasi-OS is deeply integrated into the Android environment. It takes an effort to shut it down,  because Home’s whole premise is to be always on and be the dashboard to your social world. It wants to be the start button for apps that are on your Android device, which in turn will give Facebook a deep insight on what is popular. And of course, it can build an app that mimics the functionality of that popular, fast-growing mobile app. I have seen it done before, both on other platforms and on Facebook.

But there is a bigger worry. The phone’s GPS can send constant information back to the Facebook servers, telling it your whereabouts at any time.

So if your phone doesn’t move from a single location between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. for say a week or so, Facebook can quickly deduce the location of your home. Facebook will be able to pinpoint on a map where your home is, whether you share your personal address with the site or not. It can start to build a bigger and better profile of you on its servers. It can start to correlate all of your relationships, all of the places you shop, all of the restaurants you dine in and other such data. The data from accelerometer inside your phone could tell it if you are walking, running or driving. As Zuckerberg said — unlike the iPhone and iOS, Android allows Facebook to do whatever it wants on the platform, and that means accessing the hardware as well.

This future is going to happen – and it is too late to debate. However, the problem is that Facebook is going to use all this data — not to improve our lives — but to target better marketing and advertising messages at us. Zuckerberg made no bones about the fact that Facebook will be pushing ads on Home.

And most importantly it is Facebook, a company that is known to have played loose-and-easy with consumer privacy and data since its very inception, asking for forgiveness whenever we caught them with its hand in the cookie jar. I don’t think we can be that forgiving or reactive with Facebook on mobile.

It is time to ask for simple, granular and easy to understand privacy and data collection policies from Facebook, especially for mobile. We need to ask our legislative representatives to understand that Facebook wants to go from our desktops and browsers right into our home — the place where we need to be private.

158 Responses to “Why Facebook Home bothers me: It destroys any notion of privacy”

  1. Count Zero

    What makes me go bonkers about this shit is the legions of idiots who put my data on their Facebuck / Googlefuck phone without me having any chance of stopping them. I can get the phone number of total strangers by simply asking some of their friends. This was absolutely impossible just a few years ago. And since everyone is so happy to use Gmail and Facebook without understanding the implications, we really don’t have to argue about things like governments, privacy or common sense. Those days are gone.

  2. ANY app can do this if they want to. NOT just facebook. You are going to get fed ads anyway. If you’d prefer them to be irrelevant and a waste of space on your screen than don’t use the app. If you don’t mind getting relevant ads, use it. Stop crying about it.

  3. This article should be re-titled, “My List of Absurd Assumptions”. Since you probably regard yourself as a journalist, I ask you: Do facts mean nothing in the blogosphere? Or, are you just spitballing this? At any rate, so Facebook wants to target ads to us. SO WHAT? We’re going to have ads one way or another, and I’d rather have them make productive use of my time and screen real estate than not. But again, it is business as usual to sound the privacy alarm bell, when people have been under corporate and public scrutiny for GENERATIONS.

  4. I feel like the constant uproar over ads is really drowning out a bigger, more important discussion on how these data can be used by law enforcement, politicians, employers business competitors, insurance companies, foreign governments; anyone who stands to gain by learning our secrets and using them against us.

    At least the “destruction of privacy” that comes from seeing better ads helps me in some way, by getting all that Acai berry crap out of my news feed / Gmail.

    The privacy that matters is the kind that keeps insurance companies from denying me coverage because I check in at McDonald’s too often, or a bank from rejecting my loan because several of my Facebook friends have low credit scores.

    And let’s not even get started on what its going to mean to run for President in 20 years when every candidate has been online for most of his/her life.

    There are just so many more dangerous, truly privacy destroying uses of our digital lives than ad targeting, and the amount of airtime they get relative to stuff like this is unforunate.

  5. Pascal Verstegen

    All these privacy issues… I’m not sure what on earth they’d do with my photos and my location data? I can only think of targeted ads, but I don’t mind them, rather that then random advertising right?

  6. The history of privacy concerns on the internet is one in which service providers have taken incredible risks and liberties with their customer’s privacy. To date, no one has really cared because the perception of return has been so one sided; we get an incredible social network that our aunts and uncles are on in return for a rock climbing ad because we rock climbing: no big deal. But personal security is going to become a hot button issue and FaceBook is the reason why.

  7. I’m just a little concerned about this matter but still, it itches.

    Can anyone share an alternative that is similar to Facebook’s service, or Google and others for that matter, that has less potential to be “evil”?

    Is there any social network that I can trust more or are we stuck?

    Cheers!

  8. benjaminbarren666

    luv this post. will still install on my note2 as facebook are beyond crap at implicit local personalisation. will make me delete facebook quicker fwiw.

  9. Here is what is going to happen

    Alot of people will complain, then we will forget, and then will post more and more stuff on facebook.

    Then facebook will come up with something new and the cycle continues.

  10. Anyone who argues that privacy is a thing of the past and you should get over it, or that only people with something to hide should fear having no privacy, has never had a stalker.

    Everyone needs to be aware of the erosion of privacy right now, because *right now* (or at least, soon) is the tipping point, after which your intimate details will have leaked out and be forever searchable and accessible by not just your friends, but also:

    your enemies
    stalkers
    predators eyeing your children (knowing your schedule, so they know when your kids are alone)
    government agencies
    insurance companies interested in your doctor visits/medication/recreational activities/etc.
    employers who may not look fondly on your activities outside of work
    potential employers who may decline to employ you because of your personal activities
    criminals looking to steal your account details or your identity, or extort you
    any extreme group who may wish to vilify you for views different from theirs on any number of hot button issues
    etc. etc.

    Corporations wishing to better target us with ads (and our children, and parents, and friends, and…) are actually one of the least of our worries. They are, however, the main ones trying to collect this data. And they’re the ones playing playing fast and loose with it, allowing it to leak out and pass into the hands of other actors like the ones mentioned above. (Where did you check in? When? So, you’re not at home right now and you can be burgled… Or that stalker now knows where you are because you were automatically tagged in a photo or video that has geolocation data and that you had no control over uploading… same goes for insurance companies, government agencies, employers, criminals, etc.)

  11. onmillsk

    All of these capabilities (tracking app usage, location, etc…) can be done by any Android apps with the correct permissions requested. Facebook can do this with the existing FB app, and in their Home app if they choose. So why the concern now? If you are worried about FB’s privacy breaches, then don’t install any FB apps at all. The normal one or Home.

    • You can always improve on current technologies and capabilities, that’s what FB is trying to do with home. Om’s message is for the great unwashed masses that have no idea that they are the product, not vice versa. Unfortunately, his message has limited reach (grandma in Iowa ain’t reading his tweets or articles) and it’s to the informed.

  12. I really can’t see what the big drama is about, Google already collect all that information. Had a quick look at my facebook page, out of 7 adds, there might be one I would click on, the others is a waste. So if they can know more about me to serve me content that I would be more interested in, sounds good to me. Bigger question though is this, is this the right strategy for Facebook? I know they are trying to push the add dollars, but I don’t think they will ever overtake Google, because unlike Facebook, Google serves you the adds when you are interested in a topic, not when you want to see what is happening in your social circles. I think Facebook should rather look at what are their strengths and focus on different avenues for making money, surely pushing adds can’t be the only dollar channel.

  13. @Om The biggest risk is lot of people don’t understand what they are signing up for with Facebook or Google. With Facebook the biggest risk is they are so casual and flippant about security like the way they changed email ids, changing features without notifying. It is scary to continue to remain a facebook user.

  14. António Aleixo

    On Facebook are only those who are willing to share their personal lives for one reason or the other. Most people already check in where they are all the time on Facebook anyway so I don’t think that this is that much of a big deal to be honest. Facebook’s business is in fact selling information and data to marketing agencies on what people are consuming and they are very clear about that ever since day one. Most Facebook users are aware of that and willing to pay the price of giving away some information about their habits in return of satisfying their voyeur greed or having a powerful tool of auto promotion.
    What I DO believe is very dangerous is when Facebook sells data to secret services as they did during the Arabic Spring Revolutions. That is the real threat! The fact that Facebook doesn’t care who they sell their data to or how this will be used… And for that reason I believe that a serious and severe regulation should be debated to set the boundaries of what such business can and can not do.
    Antonio

  15. andilee

    So far, FB have sent me ads for weight loss products and larger size clothing stores, with a sprinkling of car ads. I’m a regular gym goer who uses a car share service. Frankly, if they need to stalk me to this extent to improve on that, they should just pack it in and go home…

  16. shitthatshouldnotbe

    “Facebook/Google are doing this without me telling them it is okay.”

    Really? So, you didn’t click on the button/radio button/check box to accept the Terms and Conditions of the services they provide?

    o_0

  17. Nick Brown

    I was reading this article at work on my phone while waiting for some tests to run so that I could go home, when suddenly my phone displayed an alert. My commute home will be allowed by heavy traffic on the interstate. I’m not entirely sure how Google knew that it was almost time four me to drive home, or even where home is, but it likely did that through tracking. Is that creepy? A little, but it just saved me some time, so it’s worth it. My point is, these features can be very useful, and yet could easily be killed off by a poorly written law. The proper solution to privacy does not lie in our legislature. It lies in education, the media for pointing out three breaches, and the courts when it is found a company broke their published privacy guarantees.

  18. Andre Richards

    This whole Facebook Home idea is a massive fail. I want a phone with a good Facebook app, not a Facebook device. I think Facebook has definitely gotten an overinflated sense of its own importance.

    • Andre Richards

      What if he was? Does that mean you can ignore every point he makes?

      You’re looking for an easy way out. Don’t be lazy. Address the message, not the messenger.

  19. Umm, it’s only ads people. Are you all so scared of receiving sidebar ads that are targeted to things that FB Home deduces you might need or appreciate based on your movements and activity? Ridiculous- just ignore them!
    Now, if Om Malik and others spent more time thinking about how in the probable near future private security firms, or banks, or government agencies, or GOVERNMENTS started knocking on Zuckerberg’s door for access to our juicy details, then I’d be interested. But I’ll take all the shaving products/reading glasses/kid’s toys ads FB can throw at me all day long, in return for a free social networking service. (oops, I just revealed all my darkest secrets!)

    • jacquesdupoux

      @Ron, there already are private agencies combing facebook and other social networks and selling that information.

      Props to Om for at the very least calling out the privacy issues inherent with Facebook Home as a concern.

  20. Snuggles

    The point it so highlight a given activity by a given company. Suggesting that some other company is also evil may in fact be correct, but doesn’t attack the core argument. Also: dumb.