The situation ahead of Facebook and it’s billion plus users is unique. Never, in human history, has a private company had the responsibility to manage the personal data of such a vast and diverse group of people. It has given them massive power and, to head into comic-book territory, this has handed them huge responsibility.
However, it’s a responsibility they have, on many occasions, failed to properly take. The Cambridge Analytica incident is the latest in a history of issues. And fixing the systemic issues the social network faces will take more than a wishy-washy statement by the founder and CEO.
Make no mistake – Facebook is in crisis mode.
As well as the revelations about how an app developer was able to breach Facebook’s rules and scope up massive swathes of data, we now know Facebook itself was sucking up calls and SMS data from Android users for several years.
Downloaded my facebook data as a ZIP file
Somehow it has my entire call history with my partner's mum pic.twitter.com/CIRUguf4vD
— Dylan McKay (@dylanmckaynz) March 21, 2018
The incident has prompted the company to take out full page ads in newspapers. Incredibly, the ad that was signed by Mark Zuckerberg said “We expect there are others. And when we find them, we will ban them and tell everyone affected”.
Ponder that for a moment – Facebook expects there are other apps out there accessing your data, either directly or via permissions from friends, without your explicit knowledge. That’s a terrible revelation.
In hearings, the company has acknowledged that it needs to do better.
But here’s the problem the world is now facing. A private company, that is under negligible regulatory control, has control of more data about more people than any sovereign nation or empire in recorded human history. And, even if we want to abandon the platform, it’s not that easy.
For some, social media is an essential way to stay in touch with friends and loved ones that live a long way away. Many businesses rely on it for promoting products and services. Thousands of legitimate apps and services, that are doing nothing wrong, use Facebook’s authentication services to verify users for their own apps, rather than creating their own sign-on services.
Facebook’s reach is deep and wide. Simply cutting yourself from it could have many unexpected consequences.
This was also addressed by Steve Jobs with Mark Zuckerberg in the audience at an All Things D conference.
Is there an answer?
We can sit around and throw stones at Facebook for this screw-up. That would be easy. But at some point, the problem needs to be solved. With over 2.2B active monthly users, simply turning off the system or expecting users to abandon it is not a viable solution.
The closest event I can recall, that bears any resemblance to what Facebook is embroiled in, is the situation Microsoft faced in the early 2000s.
By the middle of 2001, Microsoft was under siege. Threat actors were picking holes in Windows so fast the company simply couldn’t keep pace with the attacks. Bill Gates recognised the problems his company was facing and did something that was unheard of at the time.
Under the Trustworthy Computing initiative, all development of new features was placed on the back-burner while there was a full review of all software and a concerted, company-wide effort was made to fix the architectural flaws that made it trivially easy to hack their software.
Facebook could learn from this example. At the moment, I receive updates to the mobile apps for Facebook and Messenger every couple of weeks. I’d gladly give up the steady drip of new features if the next stage of the platform’s development was wholly focused on ensuring personal data was being handled securely and that the privacy provisions around how apps work and collect data were tightened up.
At the moment, it seems to me that Facebook is more interested in how they are seen to be addressing the problem. In Zuckerberg’s newspaper ad, he doesn’t even mention Cambridge Analytica – her refers to a “quiz app built by a university researcher”.
In my view, that kind of weasel language is weak.
It’s time for Facebook to declare a definitive course of action. Or that user base of 2.2B people will start to erode. It will be slow at first, then it will accelerate as something new, sensing the opportunity moves in, much as Facebook did when MySpace was the dominant force.