Aug 14, 2019

Facebook's privacy-scandal Groundhog Day


Photo: John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Tuesday's news (via Bloomberg) that Facebook had contractors listen to users' private recorded messages to provide transcription quality control was hardly surprising.

The big picture: Google and Apple had been doing the same thing until a couple of weeks ago, when they stopped after reports surfaced in public. In fact, Facebook says it stopped the practice when its rivals did, as well. What's surprising is how little Facebook's playbook around privacy violations has changed, even after 18 months of controversy and a recent $5 billion settlement over the issue with the Federal Trade Commission.

After everything the company has been through, Facebook nonetheless:

  • Failed to disclose to users that it had people listening to their private messages, however anonymously.
  • Understood there was a problem with the practice when it decided to halt it, yet failed to report that action to its users.
  • Did not go public with any information about the issue until a news story surfaced that described the contractors as "rattled" by the work.

Flashback: The first lesson in Crisis Management 101 is get everything out on the table at once, as fast as you can. Instead, since the Cambridge Analytica data scandal first rocked Facebook in March 2018, the company has hopped from one privacy revelation to the next, having to rewind the apology tape to the start each time:

  • June 2018: Up to 14 million users learned that many posts they intended to be accessible only to small groups of friends were public instead. Facebook blamed a software bug.
  • Sept. 2018: A data breach exposes the personal information of 50 million Facebook users.
  • Dec. 2018: Facebook announces that a bug allowed outside apps to access photos they weren't supposed to, including some that users had uploaded but hadn't posted. Up to 6.8 million users were affected.
  • Feb. 2019: Facebook changes the location settings for its Android app to make them more transparent. The company had faced a previous controversy in March 2018 for scraping and saving call data from Android users' phones, but the subsequent changes it made didn't fully resolve the problem.
  • April 2019: A report revealed that Facebook user data was left unprotected by third-party developers on Amazon cloud servers, exposing 540 million records.

The bottom line: As a result, despite CEO Mark Zuckerberg's protestations that Facebook has turned over a new leaf when it comes to protecting users' information, the impression the company has given the world is that Facebook will never change.

Our thought bubble: When a company in this sort of crisis is serious about putting controversy behind it, it can come clean, conduct a thorough top-to-bottom audit, report the results, and — maybe — move on. But it might be too late for Facebook to accomplish that.

Go deeper: What Facebook knows about you

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