Should you trust Facebook with your email?
– Michael Fertik is the CEO and Founder of ReputationDefender, the online privacy and reputation company. The views expressed are his own. –
Facebook already knows a massive amount about you. They know your age, what you look like, what you like, what you do for fun, where you go, what you eat, whom you know, whom you know well, whom you sleep with, who your best friends and family are, and, again, how old they are, what they like, and so on.
Never mind that this view is not shared by the public, which is hungry for privacy in the digital age. And never mind that the “death of privacy” would serve exactly the interests of a digital media company. It seems that it may be an honestly held belief among top leadership of Facebook that privacy is and should be dead.
Now, Facebook is expanding its reach even further. It will be rolling out a unified, cross-platform messaging system that will combine features of email, SMS, and chat. The company will offer users @facebook.com email addresses. At first blush, there’s nothing altogether new about the development from a technical standpoint. Unified messaging has been a goal since the advent of disunified messaging—more or less since SMS, IM, and chat became comparably popular and used in parallel.
But a Facebook-based unified messaging system may offer different appeal and new risks, and not just because it can instantaneously distribute its feature set to its 500 million-plus user base.
It is impossible for a digital media company to care deeply about privacy. You are the only asset they have to sell. The promise of advertising in the Internet age is that the platform can connect a brand with the individual person most likely to buy. The only way that happens is through the collection and use of huge amounts of data about each of us, followed by the sale of access to the data or the person they describe.
There’s nothing wrong with advertising, and some digital media companies even want to care about privacy. But there is an unavoidable tension between the commercial demands of digital advertising and the privacy interests of the people whom the media businesses must treat as their saleable assets.
Why would we want to give a single company that is both commercially and ideologically not able or keen to support privacy even more information than we already do? Would we want to give that kind of business even more data than we give banks, search engines, telcos, browsers, or even the government?
The argument for sharing more information with companies like Facebook is that, by having more information about each of us, they can make our services more tailored to our particular needs. By reading our private messages, our emails, our SMSs, our chats, our photos, our wall posts, our check-ins, our status updates, and the patterns of our “meta-behavior” (how often we log in, the geo-stamp of our login location, etc.), they might offer suggestions on where to get a burger or even a discount on that burger. No doubt some of us will want the burger coupon.
But let me describe another scenario, just as plausible and much more financially rewarding than the burger discounts for the lead-generation companies that will surely seek to capitalize on it and similar projects. Take a 35-year-old healthy woman who is friends on a social network with a 65-year-old woman who shares her last name and who is part of a breast cancer survivors group. The same 35-year-old healthy woman receives an email about breast cancer from a friend. If you’re an insurer (or possibly an employer or even maybe a date), you’ll pay top dollar to get access to those two data points, because together they make a line that points toward a higher likelihood of future cancer. Today, those data points aren’t in the same database. With a fully merged and integrated unified messaging system, they will be. Hopefully, Facebook won’t ever want to engage in this kind of commerce, but the risk grows with every extra piece of information a company has about you, and business incentives may at some stage be too much even for goodwill to oppose.
It doesn’t matter if we think well or ill of Facebook in particular. It’s not a good idea to centralize all your most intimate details in one place—one easily replicated, mirrored, archived, and transmitted electronic place—if the house makes its money by selling data or access to what they’ve got on you.
Read Fertik’s guest blog posts at Harvard Business Review.
(Photo: A Facebook page is displayed on a computer screen in Brussels in this April 21, 2010 file photo. REUTERS/Thierry Roge)