Facebook: New Design and Features, Same Privacy Concerns
What the changes mean for users of the social media platform
At Facebook’s F8 developers conference in San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday, the company announced a number of changes, including new apps, new features, and major redesigns to the look and functionality of its core products. But while founder Mark Zuckerberg frequently used words such as “private” and “encryption,” some consumer advocates say he offered little evidence that the company was taking new measures to protect consumers’ data.
"Now, look, I get that a lot of people aren’t sure that we’re serious about this,” Zuckerberg said, making a joke that got few laughs. “I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly. But I’m committed to doing this well.”
Finding Friends—and Giving Up Data
One new feature Facebook announced at the keynote is called Make New Friends. The feature differs from the company’s People You May Know function, which uses a secret algorithm to connect people. At times, that older feature has been controversial, for instance when it reportedly connected multiple patients of a psychiatrist, none of whom were known to each other.
Make New Friends will connect strangers who have a common interest or affiliation, such as where they live or work, where they went to school, or a hobby they both pursue. And unlike many Facebook features, users will need to opt in to use the feature. That’s good for consumers, according to privacy advocates.
However, advocates also say the new feature will probably lead to more data collection by Facebook. “It could be a clever way for Facebook to get more data on everyone in order to deliver these new features,” says Katie McInnis, policy counsel at Consumer Reports. And, she says, the feature could be ripe for scammers looking for more ways to ingratiate themselves with Facebook users. “The only people you’re likely to meet are people you have no interest in being friends with,” she says.
New Design, Same Old Confusing Settings?
One of the first changes consumers are likely to notice is a new look for the Facebook app and website. The iconic blue bar over the news feed will disappear in favor of a streamlined design that shifts attention to other features of the service, such as groups and stories.
Facebook discussed those design choices in depth at Tuesday’s event but didn’t address an aspect of the old design that has drawn criticism from consumer advocates and privacy experts—confusing, hard-to-find settings to control how the platform collects, shares, and uses personal information.
Consumer advocates, including Consumer Reports, have complained that Facebook has frequently employed “dark patterns,” design choices that make it difficult for users to find and select the most privacy-protective settings.
An examination last year by Consumer Reports’ privacy researchers found that Facebook’s platform makes it relatively easy to manage the information that consumers share with other users, but the controls for managing information shared with Facebook are often hidden within multiple menus.
The language used in the settings’ descriptions typically encouraged consumers to share more information with Facebook. In addition, the language used throughout the platform implied that consumers have much more control over their data than they actually do.
“Facebook privacy has always meant privacy from other users, not privacy from Facebook,” McInnis says.
Consumer Reports reached out to Facebook to ask whether the company has plans to make changes to the interface of its privacy settings, but the company has not responded.
What Encrypted Messaging Means for Data Collection
Facebook also promised at its event to bring end-to-end encryption to Facebook Messenger.
End-to-end encryption is widely endorsed by privacy and security experts. When messages are encrypted end to end, the contents are visible only to the sender and the recipient. Once the feature is enabled, not even Facebook should be able to read Messenger conversations.
End-to-end encryption is already available on WhatsApp, a messaging platform owned by Facebook since 2014, along with Apple’s iMessage, Signal, and other services.
The technology doesn’t mean that messaging companies can’t collect data that’s useful for marketing and other business purposes, however.
“Just because it’s encrypted doesn’t mean that it’s private,” Emory Roane, policy counsel for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, said in March, when Facebook first discussed the change to Messenger.
That’s because messaging metadata—information such as whom you communicate with, how often, when, and from what location—can be as least as valuable to advertisers and marketing companies as the contents of your messages.
Recommendations From Privacy Experts
Consumer advocates say Facebook could adopt several measures to improve privacy protections.
Justin Brookman, CR’s director of consumer privacy, has called for Facebook to stop using tracking technology to collect data on consumers when they access nearly any commercial website. “Ideally, Facebook would be prevented from tracking what users do off Facebook—that’s the biggest privacy problem with the platform,” he said recently when discussing potential action by the Federal Trade Commission to rein in the company.
McInnis suggests that the company give consumers the option to pick which contacts they might want to share with Facebook. Currently, it’s an all-or-nothing option. (Earlier this month, news broke that Facebook had uploaded the contacts of 1.5 million users without their permission.)
And, McInnis says, consumers are still waiting for Facebook to fulfill a promise it made nearly a year ago to create a Clear History tool. “In your web browser, you have a simple way to clear your cookies and browsing history,” Facebook CEO Zuckerberg said during the announcement. “You should have the ability to go and clear your history at any point that you want. So we’re working on a version of this for Facebook, too.”
That announcement came at the 2018 F8 conference. The release of the Clear History tool has been pushed back repeatedly and is now reportedly scheduled for the end of 2019.