I’m in London this week for Quartz, and I chose to stay in a rather hip-looking hotel in a rather hip-looking neighborhood, because I live in Brooklyn and am a walking stereotype.
It turns out, this hotel was a rather fortuitous choice: it happened to be across the street from the Attendant coffee shop, which for the next two days, is being run by Facebook. The social network is taking over a series of cafés across the UK over the next week to offer a “privacy check-up” to those in need of caffeination. Considering everything that’s happened with the company over the last few years, I had to check it out.
Facebook had plastered its name all over the door, and propped a little Facebook-blue sandwich board on the road encouraging punters to stop in for a free cup of coffee and a chat about their privacy settings. (Just Facebook settings, by the way—there was no mention of WhatsApp, or Instagram, which Facebook also owns.)
Inside, I was greeted by two cheery people wearing grey shirts with Facebook emojis stuck on them. I was told to order a cup of coffee as normal and then head over to some more cheery people in Facebook shirts to talk about my privacy.
The woman I spoke with showed me how to find the relatively well-hidden privacy check-up function on Facebook’s app. (I don’t have it on my work phone, but I do on my personal US phone, and Facebook was offering free wifi, which let me open the app.) It’s a simple procedure, if you know what you’re looking for: You open the app, hit the three lines at the bottom of the main screen, scrolling down to the “Settings & Privacy” section, tap “Privacy Shortcuts,” and then “Review a few important privacy settings.”
The check-up has only three sections. It first asks you to confirm whether you want your Facebook account to be public, private, just for friends, or something in between. Then it brings you to a profile page, which contains much of the personal information Facebook could have on you—depending on what you’ve put into the app over the years—such as your phone number, birth date, address, and professional history. Mine had an old UK phone number that I’ve not used in close to a decade, but there was no way on this screen to remove it from Facebook. The final screen asks you to review other sites and apps, usually ones you’ve logged into through your Facebook account, to see if you want them to still have your data. I didn’t have many on there, but I’d completely forgotten about most of them anyway.
The staff (who were not Facebook employees, they told me) gave me a brochure on Facebook “Tips & Tricks,” which included what we’d just gone through, along with reminders to “think before you share” on Facebook, and to “never click on suspect links.” They offered me some Facebook stickers like the ones they had, and that was it. I was in the coffee shop for maybe five minutes.
I don’t really think that my privacy is any more secure on Facebook than it was before I went for the check-up. My Facebook account was one of the many millions of accounts that have been scraped by hackers due to lapses in Facebook’s own security in recent years. Millions of Instagram users too, recently had their passwords exposed. Facebook’s structure, at least a few years ago, also led to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where some 87 million users’ account data was given, generally without their knowledge, to a company developing psychometric advertising strategies. These strategies were probably used in the 2016 US presidential election and the UK’s Brexit referendum.
All in all, I don’t do anything particularly untoward with my Facebook account. I rarely do anything other than wish friends a happy birthday, and post a picture or two from vacation. I’m not clicking on any of the fake news disseminated on the platform, or encouraging others to do so.
If anything, I would say that Facebook itself is the one that needs the privacy check-up, given how little regard for my data it’s had over the years. But hey, at least I got a free cup of coffee.
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