Facebook cannot stay out of the headlines. While privacy advocates have long been critical of Facebook, the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal did irreversible damage; and it’s been an avalanche of bad news ever since. Recent weeks have been especially scandalous. From questionable business plans to a fresh, previously unreported Facebook scandal, the social media giant is officially in free fall. So, exactly is going on at the Menlo Park headquarters? Let’s sort through the mess.
Facebook Plans WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram Merger
On January 25, we learned Facebook has big plans to integrate all of their messaging apps. While the WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram texting services will remain as stand-alone offerings, their underlying infrastructure may be collapsed into one unifying network. Furthermore, users would be able to communicate across the three apps, even if they don’t have an account for each one.
On its face, this could be viewed as a positive move, expanding the way users around the world can interact. But big questions remain. Facebook’s privacy reputation is poor, to put it mildly. Mark Zuckerberg has attempted to quell fears, guaranteeing end-to-end encryption will be incorporated into the services.
But still, the merger is a marked departure from Zuckerberg’s previous position. When his company acquired WhatsApp and Instagram, he maintained the two apps would keep their independence and autonomy. And with Facebook’s track record, reversing course on that position leaves users uneasy. For our part, IPVanish has recommended Signal for encrypted textingin the past. Given the latest on WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram, it seems Signal is still the best bet for secure messaging.
Facebook Blocks Ad-Transparency Tools
Days after the cross-platform integration news, ProPublica exposed Facebook’s efforts to block ad-transparency tools. Several organizations, including ProPublica and Mozilla, had developed ways for users to see how they’re being targeted by advertisers. But Facebook recently updated their code, and since the update the ad-transparency tools no longer work.
The move is frustrating, but it’s hardly surprising. Facebook has made it clear that ad revenue is far more important to them than privacy, security, and transparency. In fact, months before making changes to their code, they urged ProPublica to shut down their project. When ProPublica refused, Facebook took action, and that action seems to be self-serving. Facebook offers an archive of American political ads. They clearly want to push it as an alternative to ad-transparency tools. But it isn’t an effective replacement. The archive is only available in three countries, and lacks significant data.
Facebook Exposed for Harvesting Data from Teens
While the reports about messaging apps and ad-transparency were cause for concern, January 29 brought a bombshell. TechCrunch revealed Facebook has been rewarding users aged 13-35 up to $20/monthto install a data-harvesting market research “VPN.” VPN is a huge misnomer, because the app, “Facebook Research,” represents the opposite of privacy. Instead of protecting user data, it monitors phone and web activity, and sends it back to Facebook.
Created for iOS and Android, Facebook Research requires users to install a root certificate. This gives Facebook access to private messages, emails, web searches, and browsing activity. The app also asks users to volunteer screenshots of their Amazon order histories.
This isn’t uncharted territory for Facebook.: they acquired Onavo Protect in 2013, and used the pseudo-VPN service to acquire similar data. But the age demographic of Facebook Research is a huge red flag, raising serious concerns about Facebook’s invasion of children’s privacy.
Apple Disables Facebook’s Internal iOS Apps
Following TechCrunch’s exposé, response was swift. Facebook Research existed in violation of Apple’s Terms of Service for vendors. Once the program was leaked to the wider public, Facebook stopped offering it to iOS users.
But in light of Facebook’s previous missteps, Apple was unforgiving. In 2018, Facebook removed its iOS Onavo Project app after Apple complained it violated their terms. Clearly Facebook didn’t learn their lesson; this time, Apple did more than complain. In response to the Facebook Research violation, Apple blocked Facebook from accessing their own internal iOS apps. These apps are not consumer-facing, but they’re used by Facebook engineers and employees to perform essential work functions.
Apple has since restored Facebook’s enterprise certificate, allowing internal iOS apps to function again. But revoking the enterprise certificate represents an escalation of tactics for Apple. Without the ability to use internal iOS apps, Facebook’s bottom line could be impacted. While this ban was short-lived, it sends a message that Apple will be more ruthless when the next inevitable Facebook scandal hits the headlines. Here’s hoping others follow suit.
As it stands, Facebook’s privacy reputation could not get much worse. But they’re far from the only offenders. Data harvesters are commonplace now. As a user, you must remain discerning of platforms you use, and the vendors you share information with. You must also be proactive in securing your data. Use IPVanish VPN to encrypt your internet traffic, and check-in with us regularly for important privacy developments.
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