How Facebook stands to profit from its ‘privacy’ push

In this April 11, 2018, photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg listens to a question as he testifies before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election and data privacy. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Updated 09 March 2019
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How Facebook stands to profit from its ‘privacy’ push

At first glance, Mark Zuckerberg’s new “privacy-focused vision ” for Facebook looks like a transformative mission statement from a CEO under pressure to reverse years of battering over its surveillance practices and privacy failures.
But critics say the announcement obscures Facebook’s deeper motivations: To expand lucrative new commercial services, continue monopolizing the attention of users, develop new data sources to track people and frustrate regulators who might be eyeing a breakup of the social-media behemoth.
Facebook “wants to be the operating system of our lives,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, director of media studies at the University of Virginia.
Zuckerberg’s plan, outlined Wednesday, expands Facebook’s commitment to private messaging, in sharp contrast with his traditional focus on public sharing. Facebook would combine its instant-messaging services WhatsApp and Instagram Direct with its core Messenger app so that users of one could message people on the others, and would expand the use of encrypted messaging to keep outsiders — including Facebook — from reading the messages.
The plan also calls for using those messaging services to expand Facebook’s role in e-commerce and payments. A Facebook spokesperson later said it was too early to answer detailed questions about the company’s messaging plans.
Vaidhyanathan said Zuckerberg wants people to abandon competing, person-to-person forms of communication such as email, texting and Apple’s iMessage in order to “do everything through a Facebook product.” The end goal could be transform Facebook into a service like the Chinese app WeChat , which has 1.1 billion users and includes the world’s most popular person-to-person online payment system.
In some respects, Facebook was already headed in this direction. It has dabbled with shopping features in its Messenger app for a few years, although without much effect. And WhatsApp, which Facebook acquired for $22 billion in 2014, embraced a strong privacy technology known as “end-to-end encryption” nearly three years ago. Messages protected this way are shielded from snooping, even by the services who deliver them.
But Zuckerberg said nothing in the Wednesday blog post about reforming privacy practices in its core business, which remains hungry for data. A recent Wall Street Journal report found that Facebook was still collecting personal information from apps such as user heart rates and when women ovulate .
Facebook, which perfected what critics call “surveillance capitalism,” knows it has serious credibility issues. Those go beyond repeated privacy lapses to include serious abuses by Russian agents, hate groups and disinformation mongers, which Zuckerberg acknowledged only belatedly.
“Until Facebook actually fixes its core privacy issues — and especially given their history — it’s difficult to take the pivot to privacy seriously,” said Justin Brookman, who was a research director at the Federal Trade Commission before joining Consumers Union as privacy and technology chief in 2017.
Combining the three messaging services could allow Facebook — which today has 15 million fewer US users than in 2017, according to Edison Research — build more complete data profiles on all its users.
The merged messaging services should generate new profits from the metadata they collect, including information on who you message, when you do it, from where and for how long, said Frederike Kaltheuner of the advocacy group Privacy International. That is the information that users leave behind when they message each other or conduct retail, travel or financial business, she added.
And Facebook doesn’t just use people’s information and activity on its platform, dissecting it to target people with tailored ads. It also tracks people who don’t even use the platform via small pieces of software embedded in third-party apps.
Privacy International published research in December showing that popular Android apps including KAYAK and Yelp were automatically sending user data directly to Facebook the moment they were opened. KAYAK, which was sending flight search results, halted the practice and said the transmission was inadvertent. Yelp continues to send unique identifiers known as “advertising IDs” that link to specific smartphones.
Facebook also has trackers that harvest data on people’s online behavior on about 30 percent of the world’s websites , said Jeremy Tillman of Ghostery, a popular ad-blocker and anti-tracking software.
“When they say they are building a private messaging platform there is nothing in there that suggests they are going to stop their data collection and ad-targeting business model,” he said.
In a Wednesday interview with The Associated Press, Zuckerberg offered no specifics on new revenue sources. But “the overall opportunity here is a lot larger than what we have built in terms of Facebook and Instagram,” he said.
Privacy advocates, however, do admire one key element of Zuckerberg’s announcement.
“In the last year, I’ve spoken with dissidents who’ve told me encryption is the reason they are free, or even alive,” Zuckerberg wrote.


Quest for food stamp data lands newspaper at Supreme Court

After initially opposing the information’s release, the federal government reversed course after the Argus Leader took it to court and won. (AFP)
Updated 21 April 2019
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Quest for food stamp data lands newspaper at Supreme Court

  • Luther, who now works for InvestigateTV, said it’s “transparency 101” that “taxpayers have a right to know where their money is going”
  • The Trump administration is backing the grocery stores in arguing against the information’s release

WASHINGTON: In the summer of 2010, reporters at South Dakota’s Argus Leader newspaper decided to request data about the government’s food assistance program, previously known as food stamps. They thought the information could lead to a series of stories and potentially help them identify fraud in the now $65 billion-a-year program.
They sent a stream of what they thought were routine requests for information to Washington.
Government officials eventually sent back some information about the hundreds of thousands of stores nationwide where the food program’s participants could use their benefits. But the government withheld information reporters saw as crucial: how much each store received annually from the program.
Trying to get that data has taken the paper more than eight years and landed it at the Supreme Court, which will hear the case Monday.
Argus Leader news director Cory Myers, who directs a staff of 18 at the Sioux Falls paper, says getting the information is about “knowing how our government is operating” and “knowing what government is doing with our tax money.”
A supermarket trade association opposing the information’s release argues that the information being sought is confidential. The Supreme Court’s decision in the case could be narrow or could significantly affect the interpretation of a law that grants the public access to government records.
The Argus Leader is owned by USA Today publisher Gannett and is the largest newspaper in South Dakota. It wrote about the government’s initial release of information. But Jonathan Ellis, one of the reporters behind the requests, said there’s more to learn if the paper gets what it’s seeking.
Ellis said he would like to write about the companies who profit the most from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program , called SNAP. He would like to analyze how successful efforts to involve farmers’ markets in the program have been. And he is still hoping to use the data to identify stores that seem like outliers, an indication of potential fraud.
Megan Luther, the other reporter behind the requests, said the paper has been fighting for the information for reasons beyond “there’s a good story there.” Luther, who now works for InvestigateTV, said it’s “transparency 101” that “taxpayers have a right to know where their money is going.”
The paper has gotten close to getting the data before.
After initially opposing the information’s release, the federal government reversed course after the Argus Leader took it to court and won. But the Virginia-based Food Marketing Institute , a trade association representing grocery stores and supermarket chains, stepped in to continue the fight. The group lost an appeal, and the paper hoped it would soon get the data. Then the Supreme Court took the case.
The Food Marketing Institute, which declined interviews before Monday’s arguments, has said in court papers that the public already has access to a lot of data about SNAP. But SNAP sales data by store is confidential “much the same way how much business grocers do in cash, credit, debit, checks or even gift cards is confidential,” wrote Food Marketing Institute president and CEO Leslie G. Sarasin in a blog post last month.
To decide whether the information should be released, the Supreme Court will have to interpret the federal Freedom of Information Act .
It gives citizens, including reporters, access to federal agencies’ records with certain exceptions. In the Argus Leader’s case, the US Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, argued that disclosing the data the paper sought was barred by FOIA’s “exemption 4.” It tells the government to withhold “confidential” “commercial or financial information” obtained from third parties.
It will be up to the court to determine whether what the paper is seeking counts as “confidential.”
The Trump administration is backing the grocery stores in arguing against the information’s release. The Associated Press is among dozens of media organizations that have signed a legal brief supporting the Argus Leader.
Myers, the Argus Leader’s news director, said that in the years it has taken for the paper’s case to reach the Supreme Court, the paper has continued to do the kind of investigative reporting it was attempting to do in seeking the SNAP data.
In South Dakota, he said, “there are more stories and more malfeasance than one newsroom can root out, but we certainly try.”
The case is 18-481 Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media.