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Facebook’s dreams are bold—and utterly out of whack with its reality

The world’s biggest social network wants to infiltrate our homes, our wallets, and even our brains. But after a series of privacy scandals, many users just don’t trust it anymore.

Facebook’s dreams are bold—and utterly out of whack with its reality
[Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images]

When I told a friend of mine about a recent press event in which Facebook unveiled its new Portal home video chat device, which contains an array of sensitive microphones and a camera that follows you around the room, he replied: “Yeah, like I’m going to put a Facebook camera in my living room.”

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He’s right to be skeptical. Facebook’s image hasn’t changed much since a string of privacy scandals befell it starting in 2016, when Russian operatives used the social network to spread disinformation to help the candidacy of Donald Trump. Next came news of the giant leak of Facebook users’ personal data to the shady political data consultant Cambridge Analytica, which worked for Trump. Then the New York Times exposed how Facebook had gone to a lot of trouble to deny the Russia affair both internally and externally. On top of that, the company also suffered another data breach affecting nearly 50 million accounts.

As a result, public trust in the company has suffered. Pew Research shows almost 7 in 10 U.S. adults use Facebook. But an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll reveals that only 6% of U.S. adults say they fully trust Facebook to protect their personal data, while 60% said they don’t trust Facebook to protect their data at all. Another Pew Research study in May and June found that about three-quarters of adult Facebook users had taken some action to curtail their Facebook use because of privacy concerns.

As Facebook has become the poster child for surveillance capitalism, fewer and fewer people trust it with personal data. And yet looking at Facebook’s recent product announcements, you’d think the company wasn’t worried about consumer trust and data privacy in the least. Portal isn’t the only one of Facebook’s new products that might elicit a negative response. From VR headsets and AR glasses to interfaces that read your brain signals, Facebook’s new and future products appear capable of gathering even more personal data about us. Despite its claims of becoming a “privacy focused” company, Facebook still has a long way to go to rebuild the trust it’ll need to sell these products to privacy-wary consumers.

[Photo: courtesy of Facebook]

A Portal to even more of your data

In September Facebook announced a new Portal device that sits atop your TV set and points its camera and microphones out into the living room. At first glance, it seems like Facebook might use what the Portal hears and sees in the living room to help target ads on your smartphone, or even to help its advertising partners learn what kinds of TV ads you engage with the most. (Facebook claims it tracks only what Facebook Watch shows people stream via the device. It also tells advertisers which users like to make video calls, but doesn’t reveal anything about the content of the calls.)

Facebook delayed the release of the original Portal from May until December last year because the company was embroiled in data privacy scandals and feared the public might not be in the mood to accept a Facebook camera in the living room. Facebook was probably right about that. But it is unlikely the public’s mood has improved much since. Facebook doesn’t release Portal sales numbers, but there are indications in the company’s financials that the numbers are very low.

How Facebook is worming its way into your wallet

Facebook is also building its play in perhaps the most trust-sensitive of all mediums—money. It’s proposed a blockchain-based digital currency system called libra, and in 2020 plans to offer a Messenger-based wallet called Calibra, with which users can buy and sell goods and services using the libra currency.

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Naturally, Facebook met with a lot of blowback when it made its plans for libra public in June. Some of it came flying at Facebook’s libra front man, David Marcus, when he stood before the Senate Banking Committee in mid-July. Numerous lawmakers asked, in various ways, how exactly Facebook would benefit from libra, and why the public and regulators should trust Facebook to operate its own currency system.

Marcus told the Senators that Facebook was very aware of its own chequered privacy record, and its trust issues with users, when setting up libra and Calibra. He assured the lawmakers that data generated by Calibra transactions will never be shared with Facebook or provided to advertisers. He also explained that his company set up a governing body in Switzerland, called the Libra Association, to oversee the libra currency network, in which Facebook is one of more than two dozen investors that each get equal say in oversight decisions. But the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Mastercard, Visa, and other members of the Association are now reconsidering their participation because of negative reaction to the proposed currency system by regulatory bodies around the world.

Consumers have heard such assurances from Facebook before. And the issue may not be libra’s actual privacy risks, but rather the inherent risks the public perceives in a platform designed by, overseen, and participated in by Facebook. Users, after all, would be putting more than just their personal data privacy on the line, but actual money.

Facebook, literally on your face

Along with potentially shaking up the banking system, Facebook is also likely going to expand its reach into hardware. It will almost certainly release a pair of augmented reality or mixed reality glasses. Facebook has filed at least two patents for augmented reality glasses and is hiring like crazy for its spatial computing groups (393 open jobs today). Such glasses would likely enable wearers to see digital holograms within the real world through their lenses.

For Facebook, this could mean putting a social networking interface between you and your surroundings. It might do things like identify a Facebook acquaintance approaching you and help you remember who they are by suspending holographic text of their name and other facts about them in midair. Such glasses might also use eye-tracking technology to gather information about what things you look at and how long you look at them. This data could potentially be stored and used to determine what ads to show you. It’s hard to imagine users who already don’t trust Facebook wanting to give the company access to what they look at.

A way for Facebook to read your mind

Facebook has become more interested in interfaces that don’t depend on the way you click and tap on a computer or smartphone, but rather detect your intent by picking up the firing of your neurons.

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Facebook said in September it had acquired a small company called CTRL-labs that has developed a wearable bracelet that it claims can recognize the signals your brain is sending to your hands. Then, the wearable is supposed to be able to turn these signals into instructions to control applications online.

The acquisition is not the company’s only foray into neural interfaces. Earlier this year, Facebook announced that it has been working with researchers at University of California San Francisco on a system that uses brain implants to read the firing of neurons in the brain and convert them into commands to control a computer. The USCF team published a research paper claiming it has already been able to detect a small set of spoken words and phrases from specific neurons in real time. As the work continues, the UCSF team expects to be able to decode a wider set of words with lower error rates.

Meanwhile, Facebook’s Reality Labs Group is working on its own brain-computer interface device that you wear on your head. The device is supposed to detect the wearer’s linguistic thoughts and convert them into machine-readable text—without requiring any brain implants.

According to a leaked audio transcript obtained by The Verge, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked in a July employee meeting about the brain interface technology and its possible implications for user privacy. Zuckerberg answered the question by saying how excited he is about integrating the technology as one way to control future AR and VR products. But tellingly, he did not address the privacy implications of the technology at all.

[Photo: courtesy of Facebook]

A virtual, immersive version of Facebook

Facebook has been interested in virtual reality social spaces for years, and is now close to actually launching one. Last week, the company announced Facebook Horizon, a cartoony-looking environment where you can create your own places and games, and invite your virtual friends (via avatars) to come hang out. Horizon, which launches in closed beta early next year, reminded many of the old PC-based online virtual community Second Life, circa 2003.

You access and interact with Horizon through an Oculus Quest or Rift S VR headset that completely covers your eyes and blocks out your surroundings. Neither headset tracks eye movements (though that’s probably coming in 2021 or 2022), but they detect the activity of your body and your hands. Inside the headset, you might see billboard signs baring advertisements or shops triggered by what Facebook knows about your interests, either from your activity on Facebook or within Horizons.

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Horizons’s ambition is to be a far more immersive social environment than the Facebook site or app, where there is simply no distance between you and the experience. And if you’re concerned about Facebook’s hunger for your personal data, it might feel intrusive and risky.

A long road toward regaining trust

My friend’s reticence at giving Facebook eyes and ears in his living room makes perfect sense. But if you’re uncomfortable with that, wouldn’t you also be uncomfortable wearing a Facebook device over your eyes, or allowing Facebook to mediate your experience with the real world? Would you be okay with Facebook reading and analyzing electrical signals from your nervous system? Would you trust Facebook to provide the mechanism for you to send money to your friends?

You might be if you trusted Facebook’s motives. That’s not easy when the company spent years relentlessly growing its user base while actively directing attention away from the realities of its business model: selling hyper-targeted ads based on its users’ personal data.

“I think some of the most devastating critique is not around substance in terms of what the companies do,” Zuckerberg told employees during that same July all-hands meeting. “It’s around a motive . . . and I think it’s tough to break down these perceptions and build trust until you get to a place where people know that you have their best interests at heart.”

How long will that take? People have long memories. As it stands now, most people continue using Facebook despite their privacy concerns—because Facebook is where their friends are. They’ve accepted the basic bargain of Facebook: my personal data for your social network. But for many, allowing new Facebook products to reach even further into their personal space may be a nonstarter.

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