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Facebook’s pivot to privacy

With Facebook facing a deluge of investigations across the globe by governments and their regulators into privacy misdemeanors, the social network’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg this week announced plans to pivot the entire company towards private messaging.


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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s unexpected announcement that he wants to rebuild his social media platform to allow for safe private encrypted messaging between friends comes in the same week in which many expected Facebook would introduce - or at least - announce the creation of a ‘clear history’ function for the platform.

While this long anticipated function was not mentioned in Zuckerberg’s 3,200 word blog post, many media commentators were surprised by the platform’s seemingly sudden pivot to privacy. In addition to end-to-end encryption, Zuckerberg also announced plans to eliminate the “permanence of messages”. Facebook will also try to find ways to store less metadata about message content, Zuckerberg says.

Earlier this month, FIPP argued that Zuckerberg, facing growing scrutiny from lawmakers, desperately needs to prove to the world that they don’t need to cage his creation in an article, ‘As the noose tightens, can Facebook face down regulatory scrutiny?.

In his blog post on his Facebook page, Zuckerberg says Facebook and Instagram have helped people connect with friends, communities, and interests “in the digital equivalent of a town square” over the past 15 years. “But people increasingly also want to connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room.”


“We can evolve"

He argues that it is his belief that the future of the internet will demand privacy-focused communication platforms and that these private areas will be “even more important than today's open platforms. Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally, which is why we build social networks”.

Zuckerberg acknowledges that some people do not believe Facebook’s intention to build a privacy-focused platform, “because frankly we don't currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services, and we've historically focused on tools for more open sharing”. However, “we've repeatedly shown that we can evolve to build the services that people really want, including in private messaging and stories”.

He says he sees an opportunity to build a platform that focuses on all of the ways people want to interact privately... “In a few years, I expect future versions of Messenger and WhatsApp to become the main ways people communicate on the Facebook network. We're focused on making both of these apps faster, simpler, more private and more secure, including with end-to-end encryption. We then plan to add more ways to interact privately with your friends, groups, and businesses. If this evolution is successful, interacting with your friends and family across the Facebook network will become a fundamentally more private experience.”

Zuckerberg sets out several principles for his privacy-focused platform. These are:

- Private interactions. “People should have simple, intimate places where they have clear control over who can communicate with them and confidence that no one else can access what they share.

- Encryption. “People's private communications should be secure.” End-to-end encryption prevents anyone - even Facebook - from seeing what people share.

- Reducing permanence. “People should be comfortable being themselves, and should not have to worry about what they share coming back to hurt them later. So we won't keep messages or stories around for longer than necessary to deliver the service or longer than people want them.”

- Safety. Facebook users can now expect that the social media platform will do “everything we can to keep them safe on our services within the limits of what's possible in an encrypted service”.

- Interoperability. People should be able to use any app on Facebook to reach their friends, and they should be able to communicate across networks easily and securely.

- Secure data storage. “People should expect that we won't store sensitive data in countries with weak records on human rights like privacy and freedom of expression in order to protect data from being improperly accessed,” writes Zuckerberg.

Some of the possible dangers of what Zuckerberg is planning is not lost on him. He argues that there are real safety concerns to address “before we can implement end-to-end encryption across all of our messaging services.

“Encryption is a powerful tool for privacy, but that includes the privacy of people doing bad things. When billions of people use a service to connect, some of them are going to misuse it for truly terrible things like child exploitation, terrorism, and extortion. We have a responsibility to work with law enforcement and to help prevent these wherever we can.


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Detecting patterns of activity

He continues: “We are working to improve our ability to identify and stop bad actors across our apps by detecting patterns of activity or through other means, even when we can't see the content of the messages, and we will continue to invest in this work. But we face an inherent tradeoff because we will never find all of the potential harm we do today when our security systems can see the messages themselves.”

The issue of permanency of messages is also addressed, although there is no mention of the ‘delete history’ function he mentioned a year ago. “We increasingly believe it's important to keep information around for shorter periods of time. People want to know that what they share won't come back to hurt them later, and reducing the length of time their information is stored and accessible will help.

“One challenge in building social tools is the "permanence problem". As we build up large collections of messages and photos over time, they can become a liability as well as an asset. For example, many people who have been on Facebook for a long time have photos from when they were younger that could be embarrassing. But people also really love keeping a record of their lives. And if all posts on Facebook and Instagram disappeared, people would lose access to a lot of valuable knowledge and experiences others have shared.

“I believe there's an opportunity to set a new standard for private communication platforms -- where content automatically expires or is archived over time. Stories already expire after 24 hours unless you archive them, and that gives people the comfort to share more naturally. This philosophy could be extended to all private content. For example, messages could be deleted after a month or a year by default. This would reduce the risk of your messages resurfacing and embarrassing you later,” writes Zuckerberg.


Huge implications

In its initial response to the news, American technology news and media network The Verge says if Zuckerberg can be believed, it holds huge implications for the social media giant.

For starters, they argue that Facebook’s News Feed will not function any more and become a legacy product. The scroll of updates will no longer be the center of all social media. “This could have implications that extend well beyond Facebook proper — to Instagram, for example, and to Twitter.

On top of this, money generated from New Feed will also fade.  “A world in which it withers away is one in which Facebook has to first replace, then exceed the revenues it currently generates from advertising. It will be a Herculean task,” argues technology reporter Casey Newton.

Some of the other concerns mentioned by The Verge are:

- Facebook will find itself at odds with law enforcement because people who plan terrorism and other crimes use encrypted messaging apps.

- Misinformation will become harder to track. “Shifting more public conversation to encrypted private spaces will mean we have less visibility into public sentiment — and, potentially, how politics are being played by candidates and interest groups. It’s tradeoffs all the way down.”

Zoe Kleinman, BBC technology reporter, writes the shift to more intimate communications between smaller groups, making those conversations private even from Facebook itself, and no longer keeping data for a long period of time is no doubt designed to address the tech giant's poor track record on privacy in recent times.

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