Facebook admits it scans your conversations in its Messenger app
People haven't been this unhappy with Facebook since their parents sent them a friend request. Last week we learned that the Trump-affiliated political analytics firm Cambridge Analytica improperly obtained private information from 87 million Facebook users and used it to influence voters' decisions in the 2016 presidential election. As a result of the scandal, outraged users have deleted their accounts, and the social media platform's stock has plummeted.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has apologized, and promised to make changes that will "build a better service for the long term." However, now the company is facing new concerns about privacy violations. It all started after an interview with Vox's Ezra Klein, in which Zuckerberg told a story about receiving a phone call related to ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.
"We detected that people were trying to spread sensational messages through [Facebook Messenger] to each side of the conflict," said Zuckerberg. "In that case, our systems detect what's going on. We stop those messages from going through." It's commendable that Facebook took action to prevent the abuse of one its platforms. However, many users reacted with concern - exactly how closely is Facebook monitoring our messages?
A Facebook Messenger spokeswoman told Bloomberg that Facebook scans all of our private messenger conversations, but the information is not used for advertising. Rather, they look for violations of community standards, and use the same automated tools to scan Messenger conversations that they use to monitor Facebook as a whole. When the scanners detect a violation, the team is alerted, just like they're flagged whenever users report a violation.
"For example, on Messenger, when you send a photo, our automated systems scan it using photo matching technology to detect known child exploitation imagery, or when you send a link, we scan it for malware or viruses," said the Facebook Messenger spokeswoman. "Facebook designed these automated tools so we can rapidly stop abusive behavior on our platform."
The company is working to make its privacy policies more clear, prove they can handle data responsibly, win back jaded users' trust. Recently Zuckerberg took out full-page ads in nine major American and British newspaper, to apologize for the Cambridge Analytics data harvesting scandal. He has also agreed to testify before Congress on April 11, to discuss the company's handling of privacy and personal data. But for some users, this may too be too little, too late.
The revelation that Facebook is scanning all of our private messages is disturbing, even if they're allegedly only reading "flagged" ones. Within Messenger, there is an option to enable encrypted messaging, but that feature is not turned on by default. Zuckerberg would do well to take the advice of deceased Apple CEO Steve Jobs. At a Wall Street Journal conference in 2011, he warned that privacy rules should be spelled out "in plane English."
In related news, here's how to find the creepy data file Facebook has on you...