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Facebook's ulterior motive on privacy

10 Oct 2019  |  David Balko 
Facebook's ulterior motive on privacy

Coming under government fire exposes Facebook’s true agenda, writes David Balko

When Zuckerberg proclaimed his new vision for Facebook as a privacy champion earlier this year, he must have thought he’d have stolen a march on one of the world’s burning issues.

As part of this commitment, he’s aiming to roll out end-to-end encryption, thereby meeting consumer demand for privacy and an end to dodgy data practices. Beating the altruistic drum for democracy and privacy is a clever brand reboot – and co-opting trends has been turned into an art for Facebook. It must have thought it would be well on its way to ending the years of turmoil around its data and privacy issues that have plagued the social media giant.

How wrong he was. Last week, UK home secretary Priti Patel, the US attorney general William Barr, the US acting secretary of homeland security Kevin McAleenan, and the Australian minister for home affairs Peter Dutton, were among a raft of signatories to an open letter demanding Facebook create a backdoor to encrypted messages.

Zuckerberg’s response was forceful – “we strongly oppose government attempts to build backdoors, because they would undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere.” All Hail Facebook, champion of the people. It’s a nice line, but look under the bonnet and this drastic repositioning of a business so heavily tarnished by dodgy data practices actually just exposes its ulterior motives.

Facebook as the leading voice on end-to-end encryption surely just makes it harder for anyone – user, brand or government – to know what Facebook is actually doing with the data they have. It’s the antithesis of the Wall Street Journal’s ‘democracy dies in the dark’.

Facebook is arguing democracy actively thrives in the dark. Which isn’t a winning argument from any standpoint when you consider, in particular, the last few years of political misuse of social.

As Facebook looks to move into new areas – crypto, AI, ecommerce – one thing is clear, it could use more friends and it needs to decide which side to back. This decade, and next, will likely come to be defined by the battle between privacy and security, and Facebook is at the crossroads needing to pick a direction of travel that benefits it, and to a lesser extent its users, the most.

Facebook has been making in-roads into monitoring content on its main platform. According to the open letter, 99% of content that is dealt with in some way “is identified by [Facebook’s] safety systems” as opposed to reports from users.

The issue remains on WhatsApp, and potentially in the future other avenues of the main platform on Facebook, where only end users can see the content being shared. Zuckerberg points out that a backdoor for police and intelligence agencies could become a backdoor for rogue actors.

So where does this leave brands and marketers?

Zuckerberg didn’t say. ‘Brands’ weren’t mentioned and rather surprisingly ‘advertising’ was only mentioned twice, despite being Facebook’s core business. The response to the open letter was almost as though it was some ‘other’ who had been caught doing naughty things with our data and Facebook is coming to save and protect us.

To apply Stephen Karpman’s famous psychological tool the drama triangle, Facebook has switched effortlessly from victim to rescuer in the face of persecution.

Ultimately, as a publisher, Facebook’s core business is data. If it pursues end-to-end encryption, it can dress itself in the righteous clothing of privacy, protecting our private conversations, which ultimately have zero commercial value but can generate some meaningless, positive sounding press for it.

Beyond the veil, it can meanwhile continue to flog user data to brands as it did before, less a little of the scrutiny it had before.

The game is just kicking off in a modern battle of quis custodiet ipsos custodes (who will guard the guards), and it’s one we must all pay attention to.

David Balko is Chief Client Officer, Tribal Worldwide London

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27 May 2020 

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