Big Brother Goes Mobile: Privacy Issues Could Hinder Facebook Home

There could be more than just consumer fallout should Facebook stop short on users’ privacy expectations.

Mark Zuckerberg knows where PCs and laptops are headed. In ten years, they will look like phonographs to a generation that has never used them, and opts instead for its mobile devices.

That’s why the recent introduction of Facebook Home is such a big deal. The social network is essentially launching a takeover of all things mobile. It will start with the Android and spread like a virus. Facebook isn’t just making phones; it is making your phone its own. Just like AOL in the dial-up era, it is seeking to dominate the day’s dominant communications medium. Only this time, the move comes as the technology in question is ascending.

With Facebook Home, millions of mobile users will unlock their phones to find that Facebook is no longer just an app; but the interface by which they access the sea of data and connections at their fingertips, even when their phones are locked. Because Facebook Home replaces the traditional opening screen and that jumble of apps we have all grown so accustomed to, it will fundamentally change the way we view and use mobility.

Why would a user endure the additional clicks it will take to send a traditional text message or email when Facebook Messenger is just a click away? Why would a user turn to Safari or another mobile browser to access a company or organization’s Web site when its Facebook page is easier to pull up? In this context, not even the search engines are safe. They have long stood as the marquee portals by which we access information in the digital age. For the first time since they replaced the Yellow Pages, they about to have real competition on their hands.

But there is one issue that Facebook still has to successfully navigate. With more usage comes more data--and it’s not a stretch to infer that access to troves of new and highly-lucrative user information (which is coveted everywhere from big business to electoral politics) is really Home’s underlying purpose. Given Facebook’s spotty history in the privacy realm, it should expect a great deal of scrutiny in this area as Home takes off. As such, the social network’s big data policies need to play a larger part in the rollout than they have thus far.

And there could be more than just marketplace problems should Facebook fall short of users’ privacy expectations. According to Baker Hostetler partner Craig Hoffman, whose practice focuses heavily on online privacy issues, “because of Facebook’s prior settlement agreement with the FTC over privacy issues, it will face severe consequences if it fails to uphold its promises that Home will not change your existing Facebook privacy settings and cannot see what occurs in non-Facebook applications.”

Even before Home was introduced, myriad users had already voiced concerns about Facebook’s more Orwellian aspects. To them, Big Brother just got bigger--and they won’t hesitate to reverse the looking glass if they get the sense that their favorite social network is watching just a little too closely.

[Image: Flickr user Neal Fowler]

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