Playing Favorites … The Dangerous Game FB’s Been Playing with Our Data

Let’s start this post with a clarifying statement – I completely support the right of any company to collect and use its customer data as agreed to in the terms of service. Data-driven business insights are the backbone of the new economy, in publishing and just about every sector.

Given this, the latest news around Facebook’s two-face use of data still strikes a deep nerve, reminding us that ultimately we have no control over what a company does with our personal information once we post it … regardless of what they claim about their privacy policies.

“Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg oversaw plans to consolidate the social network’s power and control competitors by treating its users’ data as a bargaining chip, while publicly proclaiming to be protecting that data, according to about 4,000 pages of leaked company documents largely spanning 2011 to 2015 and obtained by NBC News,” write Olivia Solon and Cyrus Farivar in NBCNews.

“The documents, which include emails, web chats, presentations, spreadsheets and meeting summaries, show how Zuckerberg, along with his board and management team, found ways to tap Facebook’s trove of user data — including information about friends, relationships and photos — as leverage over companies it partnered with,” they continue.

These documents came to light during a California court case in which startup Six4Three sued Facebook for cutting off their access to user data. Prior to 2015, Facebook publicly took an egalitarian approach to data access, yet behind the scenes it was playing favorites for profit.

“One of the most striking threads to emerge from the documents is the way that Facebook user data was horse-traded to squeeze money or shared data from app developers,” the article continues. This takes “pay to play” to an entirely new level. All this happened at the same time the company was publicly declaring its commitment to data privacy.

In reality, they were more concerned with remaining a dominant platform than protecting our data.

“The purpose of the platform is to tie the universe of all the social apps together so we can enable a lot more sharing and still remain the central social hub,” Zuckerberg said in a leaked email. This position led to favoritism, reciprocity and denial of data to apps that didn’t play along.

Through it all, the documents show Facebook leadership as masters of spin.

“So one idea that came up today was potentially talking in the keynote about some of the trust changes we’re making on Facebook itself,” wrote Jonny Thaw, then Director of Communications. “So the message would be: ‘trust is really important to us — on Facebook, we’re doing A, B and C to help people control and understand what they’re sharing — and with platform apps we’re doing D, E and F.’”

“If that doesn’t work,” he added, “we could announce some of Facebook’s trust initiatives in the run up to F8” to make the changes for developers ‘seem more natural.’”

Hiding behind this public façade of trust, the reality is that third-party apps were able to override user privacy setting.

“Even if users locked down their account so that their photos and other data were visible to ‘only me,’ those photos could still be transferred to third parties, according to the documents,” the NBC News piece continues.

We all know the fall-out of this policy, evidenced by the Cambridge Analytica scandal and growing user mistrust. I want to reiterate here – I do NOT have a problem with a company using the data it collects from users – providing the user can know — and TRUST – that this is how their personal info will be shared. Then, it’s up to the user to moderate their own usage accordingly.

What these leaked documents show is something very different … basically, we’ll say one thing, all the while knowing we are doing something else.

What I find really striking is how cavalier so many of us have become about our personal info on Facebook. That girl’s weekend to Chicago? Some advertiser knows you’re there, who you’re with, and is targeting you with ads at this moment. Your new grandchild? That information is out there, available to who knows who, with a few keystrokes. It’s this level of privacy invasion that is frightening.

The bottom line I draw from this is simple – we can’t trust Facebook to keep our private information private. User, beware.