What started as an exclusive network for Harvard students is now a billion-dollar company. And now, it’s in trouble — again — for exploiting its massive user base for information given without consent. Facebook is now embroiled in controversy regarding its providing of user data to the political data firm Cambridge Analytica to give to then-candidate Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. And now, some Android users have noticed that Facebook has been furtively monitoring their text messages and phone calls, too. One Facebook user downloaded his Facebook data as a ZIP file and was shocked to find that Facebook had collected his call history, including the duration of phone calls, the identities of people he had called and those who had called him, along with the dates and times of incoming and outgoing phone calls going back for years.
As just the latest example of users being exploited by Facebook, this scandal could be the breaking point: Maybe it’s time to delete Facebook.
On Android and Facebook Lite devices, recent versions of Facebook Messenger explicitly request access to call logs and text message logs. That’s not so bad, even though many users might mistakenly opt-in if they misunderstand the purpose of the prompt. But here’s the kicker: According to Ars Technica, even if they didn’t opt in, Android and Facebook Lite users might have been unwittingly giving Facebook that information anyway.
In a blog post, Facebook claimed that uploading call and text message logs has always been opt-in, even if, as Ars Technica points out, that narrative directly contradicts the experiences of Facebook users who found evidence of that data mining without their permission. It’s because, before the explicit request for permission for call and SMS logs instituted in 2016, the default installation of Facebook Messenger included an opt-in to give Facebook call and text message logs, and Facebook failed to notify users of this data collection. And even after Facebook instituted an express request for permission, that request did not ask for access to call logs or text message logs. Instead, Ars Technica reports that the platform gave users an “OK” button to approve “keeping all of your SMS messages in one place.”
By now, it’s clear that we really don’t know how much data we’re giving Facebook. The vagueness of privacy policies — and the fact that a fair few people actually read these policies, and even fewer understand them — has created an environment in which users blindly place confidence in Facebook’s benevolence. But even if we understand the policies that Facebook has made clear to us, the discovery that Facebook has been secretly harvesting our calls and text messages without permission is a clear indication that we should reconsider trusting them.
Our level of trust in Facebook to protect our privacy, when its business model centers on selling our information, is astounding. Facebook has power because it is ubiquitous; its accounts link to nearly every other interactive platform, including Yelp, Airbnb and Twitter. Users assume, then, that Facebook can’t be that bad, because it wouldn’t have over 2 billion users if that were the case. Young users in particular — users who have grown up in social media, sharing their thoughts, images and lives online — demonstrate considerable tolerance for privacy breaches, because they’re used to voluntarily giving up their privacy in exchange for social media interactivity. But Facebook has exploited this trust for too long.
So let this be a wake-up call. If Facebook’s power lies in its ubiquity, then the financial sting of consumers leaving its platform might be the only significant motivator for Facebook to become truly transparent. Even if it isn’t, it will be a decisive show of consumer values that will influence the development of new platforms to instill a greater respect for consumer privacy.
Facebook brought connectivity to our lives; it allowed us to find long-lost classmates and stay in touch with old friends. It allowed us to, for the first time, begin to create our online lives and memories that we share with others. But the platform also brought social media addiction, unhealthy comparisons between ourselves and others and, of course, the chilling commodification of our personal information and identities.
If consumers continue to reward companies that breach their privacy, tech companies will only continue to mine our online identities for personal information that churns a massive profit when sold to consulting firms and advertising agencies. With Facebook, users have an opportunity to disrupt the New Age model of revenue building. If we collectively leave Facebook, we send the message that we will not accept platforms that secretly collect our personal information. More than that, we tell the world that we will not condone the distillation of our personhood into information regarding demographic characteristics, personality traits and interests that can be bought and sold. That powerful statement could change the way that social media platforms build and operate.
Facebook users — there are 2 billion of us: Let’s make our voices heard. Sonali Seth is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.