“I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly,” admitted Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
On Tuesday 30 April, Facebook debuted a makeover for its main app at its annual developer conference, F8, in San Jose, California.
Speaking at the event, CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained that Facebook Messenger has been rewritten from scratch: it now includes ways for people to watch videos together. Likewise, the Facebook app has been entirely redesigned (“The app isn’t even blue anymore!”), and a new desktop webpage will launch later this year. Both will feature new mobile and desktop apps and a “friends” tab that brings Instagram stories and Facebook posts into the app. And, according to CNN, Instagram has also been updated with a wide range of features, including fund-raising and shopping options: users will now be able to buy directly from influencers (Kim Kardashian West, Kylie Jenner and Gigi Hadid are among those influencers taking part in the test scheme).
The most important thing for Zuckerberg, though, is that his social media products create “a sense of intimacy” for users.
“Now look, I get that a lot of people aren’t sure that we’re serious about this,” said Zuckerberg, acknowledging scepticism around the company. “I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly. But I’m committed to doing this well.”
The final iteration of this overhaul – the integration of WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram messages into a single product with end-to-end encryption, as Zuckerberg announced in March – is still years away.
However, it makes sense that Facebook is making privacy their main goal, especially when you consider the fact that, during an interview with Vox in 2018, Zuckerberg admitted that the social networking site scans and analyses private Messenger conversations.
The Facebook CEO explained that the social media giant had “detected” that “sensational messages” were being sent via Messenger in Myanmar.
Recalling how Facebook’s private messaging function was being used to spread misinformation in the country, adding fuel to ethic violence against a Muslim minority group called the Rohingya, Zuckerberg said that his team were quick to intercept the messages.
“In that case, our systems detect that that’s going on,” Zuckerberg said. “We stop those messages from going through.”
Clarifying Zuckerberg’s comments in a statement at the time, Facebook confirmed that it did use automated tools – but only to scan Messenger chats for malware links and child porn images. It also allows users to report chats that may violate community standards.
The company’s moderators could review any messages that are flagged by users or the automated systems, in order to ensure that all content on the site conforms to identical “community standards.” Any posts or messages that seemed to run against these standards could be reported by fellow users, in which case the company’s “community operations” team conducted a review.
“Keeping your messages private is the priority for us,” they added. “We protect the community with automated systems that detect things like known images of child exploitation and malware.
“This is not done by humans, [and] Facebook designed these automated tools so we can rapidly stop abusive behaviour on our platform.”
Facebook further noted that the ways in which Messenger looks into users’ messages are, in fact, “very similar to those that other internet companies use today.”
Facebook has come under intense scrutiny in recent years after news broke that Cambridge Analytica, a data firm with ties to President Donald Trump’s campaign, may have had information on millions of Facebook users without their knowledge.
It is believed that the information was used “to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements”.
In the words of Christopher Wylie, a whistleblower who worked with Kogan to obtain the data, and who has come forward to reveal his role in the affair: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”
And, in a blog post published 4 April 2018, Facebook confirmed that even more people – beyond the initial 50 million – had been affected by the scandal.
At the end of a lengthy piece, authored by Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer, the company said simply: “In total, we believe the Facebook information of up to 87 million people – mostly in the US – may have been improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica.”
The episode sparked questions over privacy on the social media platform, and led to calls for tough new regulation. It also prompted calls for Facebook to be more transparent about how it handles user data.
Addressing these concerns at the time, Schroepfer confirmed that Facebook will now delete all call and SMS logs older than one year old.
“In the future,” he wrote, “the [Messenger and Facebook Lite] client will only upload to our servers the information needed to offer this feature – not broader data such as the time of calls.”
He also added that it had previously been possible to search for a person’s phone number or email address to find them, but that Facebook had removed this tool.
“Malicious actors have abused these features to scrape public profile information by submitting phone numbers or email addresses they already have through search and account recovery,” he said.
“Given the scale and sophistication of the activity we’ve seen, we believe most people on Facebook could have had their public profile scraped in this way. So we have now disabled this feature. We’re also making changes to account recovery to reduce the risk of scraping as well.”
Schroepfer went on to confirm that Facebook has also removed any given app’s access to “personal information such as religious or political views, relationship status and details, custom friends lists, education and work history, fitness activity, book reading activity, music listening activity, news reading, video watch activity, and games activity”.
“In the next week, we will remove a developer’s ability to request data people shared with them if it appears they have not used the app in the last three months,” he said.
At this time, Cambridge Analytica and its affiliate companies have claimed that they did nothing wrong. The London offices were raided on 23 March 2018 by local investigators.
It remains unclear as to whether or not Facebook’s new design and approach to privacy will usher in real change for the social network, which currently reaches more than 2 billion people around the world.
“I’m sure we’re going to keep unearthing old issues for a while, so it may feel like we’re not making progress at first,” said Zuckerberg, acknowledging that it could take some time to see if the changes make a noticeable difference.