Are we finally seeing a pivot towards privacy?

08 March 2019

When a company changes its mission statement, it doesn’t normally provoke headlines. Not so in the case of Facebook. Several years ago, Mark Zuckerberg wrote about creating a more open and interconnected world (“We do this by giving people the power to share whatever they want and be connected to whoever they want”). Privacy was dead. Or so people thought*. Fast forward to 2019 and these words sound strikingly out of step with the current zeitgeist. Zuckerberg has just released a 3,000 word manifesto on how Facebook will pivot to focus on privacy and security. He says “a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today's open platforms”. His proposals are based around 6 key principals: private interactions, encryption, reducing permanence, safety, interoperability and security of data storage. 

In reflecting on privacy and permanence, I noted yesterday was World Book Day. You might ask what does that have to do with Facebook and privacy?. Well, this marks one of the “sharenting” highlights of the year (along with “first day at school”) when children are encouraged to attend school dressed as their favourite book character. Sadly, children’s privacy appears to take a back seat when vying with the need of parents to share their sartorial efforts via Instagram or Facebook. 

A quick review of World Book Day posts three years ago compared to 2019 on my Facebook feed show far fewer photos than previous years. One reason might be fatigue with the dressing up phenomenon (which by most accounts seems to have little impact on children’s reading levels). Or perhaps might it just be that the message about privacy is starting to sink in?. As a parent I find it far more socially acceptable now to say that I don’t want photos of my children shared on social media than I did two years ago. Back then my stance was regarded as a bemusing side effect of working at a privacy and defamation law firm. 

For Mr Zuckerberg, Facebook’s pivot reflects the maturity and enlightenment of its users, the awakening of regulators and the hard work done by bodies such as the Children’s Commissioner (including the recent collaboration with Schillings to protect children from online harm). There has been a great deal of effort by this body to educate parents and teachers over the last few years, such as the report Who Knows What About Me, published in November 2018. It contains practical advice for example, how it isn’t always obvious what data is being shared – even tagging a child at home on their birthday gives away their date of birth and (potentially) home address! 

As an investigator I often witness how social media can be used as a source of information about someone. It is often the innocuous pieces of information, the location, the background, the people you are with, the time and date, the sequencing, the people who shared it. These are all details that get pieced together along with other public records in a kind of digital jigsaw. Who is putting the pieces together? The list is long: investor, joint venture partner, stalker, journalist, shareholder activist, head-hunter, hacker or even your soon-to-be-former partner.

If you really think you have nothing to worry about from organisations such as Facebook, then test that assumption. Take your Facebook URL and paste it into a site such as http://www.stalkscan.com/. This will show you what is publicly accessible. You might be surprised by the results. Now imagine these pieced together with hundreds of other data points available about you. For our clients we offer a full Privacy Exposure service which looks at everything a tenacious third party might find in 3 days by searching a wide array of open sources and public records.

In the meantime, Facebook will be merging WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger with end to end encryption as part of its new privacy initiative. How this will play out given Facebook’s reliance on data sharing as a business model, remains to be seen. In the meantime, the unification of the three apps have been described as an astute commercial move in order to challenge and dominate the private messaging market. It sounds like a very lucrative proposition, dressed up in the sheep’s clothing of privacy.  

*At Schillings, we have always been very passionate about people’s right to privacy. Back in 2015, our top privacy lawyer, Jenny Afia, commented in the Huffington Post on how privacy will remain alive and well for generations to come. 

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About the Author

Juliet Young

Head of Investigations

Juliet draws on over 15 years of experience in the corporate investigations and intelligence field to help clients solve reputation management and privacy problems.

646 934 6219