Since I wrote my Snitchgate Blog, things seem to have been moving forward. First of all, I’d like to thank all the people who have read the blog, liked it, reblogged it and commented on it – the fact that there have now been in excess of 125,000 hits on the blog is wonderful, and I can’t help thinking that it must have contributed to the impact.
Yesterday, the story was taken up by the excellent Kashmir Hill (@kashhill) in her blog for Forbes, The Not-So Private Parts. Kashmir got a quotes from Facebook spokesperson Fred Wolens, who admitted that this has been going on – so Snitchgate was definitely real – but suggested first of all that it was for a very limited period and secondly that it was not being used for enforcement purposes. As he put it:
“This was a limited survey we have already concluded… …We are always looking to gauge how people use Facebook and represent themselves to better design our product and systems. We analysed these surveys only using aggregate data and responses had zero impact on any user’s account.”
The suggestion, therefore, is that it wasn’t being used to actually verify real names – or to find users whose names were fake – but just as a survey of people’s behaviour. Kashmir wasn’t entirely convinced – and neither am I. It’s also notable that though Wolens said the survey had already ‘concluded’, he didn’t say that similar tactics wouldn’t be used again. I hope, however, that Facebook were at least partially put off by the publicity – and analysis – that their tactics generated. The way that interest in my blog in particular took off demonstrated to me that there’s a huge amount of concern about this issue – and not just from the ‘usual suspects’ of privacy advocacy.
This morning, the story even made its way into the mainstream – Daily Telegraph blogger Mic Wright (@brokenbottleboy) “Facebook snoopers and the rise of the social network Stasi” starts with a discussion of the snitching issue. It comes at a time when Facebook are under increasing pressure. ‘Bad news’ stories seem to just keep emerging, from the forced abandonment of facial recognition systems in Europe after pressure from the Irish Data Commissioner to the panic over what users believed were private messages suddenly appearing on their walls – and the deep concern over an ad tracking system that will “track whether people who see ads for products on the social networking site actually go out and purchase them in stores”.
Matching the pressure from these ‘bad news’ stories is the need for Facebook to make money, with the stock price still mired… so what can and what will happen? If Facebook continues to push the envelope on privacy, more of these stories will emerge, and there will be more of a reaction – and Facebook will look more and more like the ‘bad guys’, perhaps even starting to lose customers. If that happens, the stock will fall still further.
So what can Facebook do? That’s the real challenge, and I’m not sure Facebook is really up to it. They need to find a way to re-cast their service as a ‘privacy-friendly’ service – but that can’t just be a ‘rebranding’, because the internet has a way of uncovering these things, as the speed with which the Snitchgate story went from being a few tweets to being mainstream news has shown. They need not just to change how they describe what they do, but to change what they actually do – and that’s not in any way easy, either in terms of what might loosely be called the ‘Facebook mindset’, or in terms of building a business model that both makes money and respects privacy. Can it be done? I really don’t know.
Of course in writing this blog I’m being highly optimistic – what’s far more likely to happen is that Facebook will simply ignore all of this and plough on regardless, finding more and more ways to invade our privacy and use our personal information. If so, however, people like me – and most of those who’ve visited this blog over the last few days – will keep on talking, writing, tweeting and blogging about it, and do our very best to be heard. I hope we’ll succeed!