Dogs and Ponies

Speaking of criminals, or criminal enterprises, Mr Zuckerberg of Facebook has published a post about his company’s plans as regards privacy related to personal messaging. Great, you might react, after Facebook’s many scandals related to exactly that concern in the recent past, too many to enumerate here – also as I am tired of rehashing basically the same findings again and again.

Let me just point to the latest, as it demonstrates how far beyond of what we usually understand as “the Internet” Facebook’s evil reach goes: at least eleven popular health applications were sharing extremely sensitive personal data with Facebook through mobile phones. You know, women recording their menstruation cycles for contraceptive planning, or the converse, for actually getting pregnant – Facebook got informed about all the details, of course without the users’ consent, or even awareness. Why would Facebook want that information?! Well, advertising.

Back to Mr. Z.’ post. No, he did not address the issues of tracking, spying, collecting and selling of personal data, and all the other intrusive endeavours that are the basis of Facebook’s financial bottom line. No, it was all about messaging. That’s right, the part of the company that does not make substantial money, if any. If you’re a WhatsApp user, you might ask, wait, aren’t my messages already now end-to-end encrypted, and thus perfectly protected? And you’d be right, they are. Facebook does not, and never intended to, make money from prying into the contents of your messages. I have no doubt they use the related meta-data1 for their data collections, especially if you’re a Facebook user and have an account there, so the meta-data can be easily connected to your account data.

But not the message contents. So, Zuckerberg just promises better protection for an area that is in no need for it, as it already exists. A promise in his typical, vacuous way, with many words, but no specifics. A PR stunt without deeper consequences for his income and wealth.

Don’t get me wrong: of course, it’s good that personal messaging gets all the protection that is state of the art. As I understand it, the other Facebook messaging platforms, Instagram and Messenger, could use some improvements in this respect. Hence, I applaud any improvements in this area. And it’s positive if a behemoth such as Facebook takes a clear position here, in the light of all the state-driven efforts to undermine safe, encrypted messaging.

But Facebook should fix its real privacy problems, not perform some dog and pony show to try to distract the public – including lawmakers and regulators – from the former.

Note that I do not give other companies a pass here. Tim Cook of Apple loves to talk about privacy and user data protection, and chide Facebook and Google for their practices. But when it comes to Apple’s bottom line, he’s less strict – while they do not misuse our data, there are other, directly related aspects. If Apple know that Facebook is spying on people, why do they even allow their mobile apps in their App Store? Wouldn’t it be consistent to define and enforce rules and regulations for their own store that forbid that? Or why are Apple cashing in $12 billion from Google for the privilege to be the primary search engine on iOS? Why do Apple bow to the Chinese government and have all data of Chinese users stored on servers in China (including encryption keys), knowing about the intrusive state surveillance in that country? Easy: it would harm their income. I still think Apple is way ahead of its competitors regarding privacy and user protection, but they could do more.

Talking about the servers in China: Zuckerberg mentions that aspect in his post – Facebook does not have any servers in China. But for a simple reason, and it’s not about privacy: Facebook are simply irrelevant in this country, where WeChat is what everyone uses. So again, an easy decision. It will be interesting to observe how long it takes for Zuckerberg to use this “China” argument against Tim Cook and Apple.

It’s all about dogs and ponies.

  1. The data about your messages, such as participants and their locations. ↩︎