By Om Malik
One of the great things about attending Facebook’s events is that one gets to see Mark Zuckerberg mature as a chief executive and hone his presentation skills. And today, he didn’t disappoint in his ability to spin the media corps. It was all claps for “four colors on HTC First” and ideas “inspired” by the likes of Amazon Kindle (ads) and Path. But what he did most brilliantly was obfuscate the difference between an app (Home), the user experience layer and the operating system.
Zuckerberg did that for two reasons: First, to buy his company time to build a proper OS that will come to us in dribs and drabs and then will wash over us suddenly, like a riptide. And secondly, to convince people that ”Home” is just like any other app. Unfortunately, Facebook’s Home is not as benign as that.
In fact, Facebook Home should put privacy advocates on alert, for this application erodes any idea of privacy. If you install this, then it is very likely that Facebook is going to be able to track your every move, and every little action. It is a future I wrote about a few days ago, and let me explain using that very same context.
The new Home app/UX/quasi-OS is deeply integrated into the Android environment. It takes an effort to shut it down, because Home’s whole premise is to be always on and be the dashboard to your social world. It wants to be the start button for apps that are on your Android device, which in turn will give Facebook a deep insight on what is popular. And of course, it can build an app that mimics the functionality of that popular, fast-growing mobile app. I have seen it done before, both on other platforms and on Facebook.
But there is a bigger worry. The phone’s GPS can send constant information back to the Facebook servers, telling it your whereabouts at any time.
So if your phone doesn’t move from a single location between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. for say a week or so, Facebook can quickly deduce the location of your home. Facebook will be able to pinpoint on a map where your home is, whether you share your personal address with the site or not. It can start to build a bigger and better profile of you on its servers. It can start to correlate all of your relationships, all of the places you shop, all of the restaurants you dine in and other such data. The data from accelerometer inside your phone could tell it if you are walking, running or driving. As Zuckerberg said — unlike the iPhone and iOS, Android allows Facebook to do whatever it wants on the platform, and that means accessing the hardware as well.
This future is going to happen – and it is too late to debate. However, the problem is that Facebook is going to use all this data — not to improve our lives — but to target better marketing and advertising messages at us. Zuckerberg made no bones about the fact that Facebook will be pushing ads on Home.
And most importantly it is Facebook, a company that is known to have played loose-and-easy with consumer privacy and data since its very inception, asking for forgiveness whenever we caught them with its hand in the cookie jar. I don’t think we can be that forgiving or reactive with Facebook on mobile.
It is time to ask for simple, granular and easy to understand privacy and data collection policies from Facebook, especially for mobile. We need to ask our legislative representatives to understand that Facebook wants to go from our desktops and browsers right into our home — the place where we need to be private.