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How Facebook should fix its privacy problem

Zuckerberg has been on a bit of a publicity tour following the Cambridge
Zuckerberg has been on a bit of a publicity tour following the Cambridge

Mark Zuckerberg is sorry that it’s too confusing to protect your privacy on his social network, and he promises to make that easier.

“The biggest message we have heard recently is that people want easier control over their information,” the Facebook (FB) founder and CEO wrote. “Simply put, many of you thought our controls were too complex.”

The problem for Facebook: Zuckerberg wrote those words in 2010, when he pledged these improvements in a Washington Post op-ed.

Eight years later, a much larger Facebook — with 2.1 billion users instead of the 400 million-plus Zuckerberg cited in that piece — is making strikingly similar assurances. The “It’s Time to Make Our Privacy Tools Easier to Find” headline on its post Wednesday would have fit just as well atop Zuckerberg’s 2010 essay.

The privacy interface does need work

Facebook isn’t wrong to talk about the privacy settings in its desktop site and mobile apps. They look like the product of a series of committees, with some parts showing far more attention to detail than others.

The Cambridge Analytica debacle — in which we learned that a researcher hired by that Trump-linked firm had collected the data of maybe 50 million Facebook users by getting about 270,000 of them to run a personality-test app under false pretenses — has directed a hot spotlight at one of the worst aspects of that interface.

Compared to the corresponding app-privacy settings in iOS and Android, it’s a disaster. There’s no overview showing which apps read categories of data — your friends list, your Likes, your photos — to match what Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG, GOOGL) offer in their own Settings screens.

Until a few days ago, Facebook’s Apps settings also included an “Apps Others Use” section. The details there suggested that your friends’ apps were also peeking at your data, even though Facebook shut down that capability in 2015. What was this section still doing in 2018? Facebook’s story: It had meant to get around to removing it.

The other sense of privacy

But the larger failing of Facebook’s privacy user experience is how little insight and control it affords about Facebook’s own collection of data.

If you define privacy as “who can see what I post,” Facebook does very well — its settings governing that represent a model of transparency in a core function that remains incredibly useful at connecting people from afar. But if you define it as “what Facebook knows about me,” the social network turns opaque.

You can get a secondhand sense of Facebook’s understanding of you by visiting your ad preferences (facebook.com/ads/preferences/), which let you inspect and edit the interests that Facebook has discerned from your activity. This page also shows which advertisers have used Facebook’s “Custom Audiences” feature to map their customer lists to Facebook’s data.

If you download an archive of your data (an option that Facebook, to its credit, added back in 2010), you’ll also get a detailed inventory of the information you provided — or was provided on your behalf by Facebook’s apps. This was how we learned that enabling a contacts-sync option in some Android apps let Facebook log your text messages and calls until last October.

But neither your ad preferences nor your data download will reveal how much info Facebook has correlated from various sources to pinpoint your interests in almost real time — with borderline-creepy results that invite conspiracy theories about how the company must be turning on the microphone in its apps to snoop on our conversations.

Time for a data diet

A clearer privacy interface, which Facebook keeps promising every time it gets into trouble, won’t address its excessive appetite for information. This company and social-media firms in general need to adopt the concept of “data minimization” collecting only the information needed to do a task and then getting rid of it.

Under that idea, for example, Facebook could still ask for access to your contacts to help it find your friends on platform, but it would delete those records after making that scan. Having Facebook tell you when friends are nearby wouldn’t require it storing your location history. And having Messenger take over text messaging wouldn’t have it log your calls too.

In certain areas, Facebook should simply stop trying so hard. The vague algorithm that generates its “People You May Know” suggestions needs to get dialed way back. There are few easier ways to undermine your privacy on Facebook than to let distant acquaintances into your online life by accepting these mysterious endorsements.

It’s not as if Facebook has no experience with lowering its sights. Simply look at the quiet shelving of its past ambitions to replace e-mail and pay developers in its own currency.

And this time around, there’s an outside factor: the European Union’s sweeping General Data Protection Regulation.

When the GDPR goes into effect May 25, Facebook and any other site handling the data of EU residents will have to meet new standards for transparency, accountability and data portability. For instance, a site will have to declare upfront how it will use somebody’s data, then delete it on their request; in between, EU residents will be able to demand documentation on its tracking.

Now that it has to build those features into its European site and apps, Facebook can look smart and extend them to U.S. users–or it can subject them to second-class treatment and dig its own hole a little deeper.

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.