A few months ago, Facebook was found to have been running a rampant data collection programme, but under hushed tones. The social media monarchy was running it as a "research" programme, wherein it provided teens with lucrative avenues to earn money in exchange of always-on surveillance on what the young crowd was doing with their phones. After much ruckus and hasty apologies, Facebook pulled the plugged on it — or so it seemed.
A couple of days ago, Facebook declared that it is putting more effort on its market research programmes, and introduced ‘Study from Facebook’. If the marketing jargon is to be believed, the research programme will help Facebook “build better products for people”. In exchange for this help, Facebook will be “offering transparency, compensating all participants, and keeping people’s information safe and secure.”
Between the lines
Beyond this jargon-heavy and seemingly polite description, Facebook Study is exactly the same as Facebook Research, albeit with a legal makeover. While Research was shrouded in secrecy, Study puts everything out in the open. Facebook will run ads for its market research programme, and anyone clicking on the link will get to see a page that explains what it is about, and what sort of participation is expected of them.
Once the user agrees, they will be given a Google Play Store download link, from which they can download the ‘Study from Facebook’ app. Interestingly, Facebook had violated Apple’s terms in both the App Store and its beta testing platform TestFlight, which do not allow such data collection practices for public apps. As a result, Facebook is totally avoiding the Apple environment, and is instead focusing on Android users only. This works, too — only USA and India have been selected for this “market research” initiative, and when it comes to India, an overwhelming majority of potential participants use Android phones.
Facebook will then ask for permissions to read what apps the user in question is using. It will also read into the kind of in-app features that are being used the most, the device and network location log, and the amount of time that each app is used for. This immediately raises a fundamental and grave question, of Facebook being able to read your private messages, see when you enter your credit card digits in an app, or simply share a photograph with your boyfriend.
As if to immediately answer this question, Facebook’s official blog post by Facebook product manager Sagee Ben-Zedeff reads, “Study from Facebook does not collect user IDs, passwords, or any of the participant’s content, such as photos, videos, or messages. We also don’t sell information from the app to third parties or use it to target ads, and it is not added to a participant’s Facebook account if they have one.”
Conscience v. Profit
Back when chief executive Mark Zuckerberg appeared at the US Capitol for questioning by US senators, a very important point was raised regarding Facebook’s antitrust practices. When asked about its predatory business practices, Zuckerberg answered that he considers “many companies” across the world as potential competitors. When asked for a specific answer, none came up.
Right now, Facebook is riddled with multiple antitrust lawsuits, as are fellow Big Tech firms such as Apple and Google. However, while it is possible to name companies that may satisfactorily qualify as rivals to Apple and Google, the market condition is very different for Facebook, and is directly correlated to its brutal data collection practices.
Personal privacy infringement is a huge part of the data surveillance lawsuits that Facebook is facing. But, the problem goes beyond that — it was accused of forcefully collecting data on the kind of apps in use, exactly what features were being accessed, and what all a user preferred. This helped Facebook understand the pulse of the prevalent youth, and if a feature seemed recurrent enough, it would be simply built into their own ecosystem, or bought over. Case in point — Facebook Stories, Instagram Shopping, etc. In fact, Facebook’s billion-dollar acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram could be entirely attributed to antitrust practices.
It is alarming to think of the might of Facebook. Even with multiple antitrust cases looming on its head, Facebook managed to announce a programme that is perfectly legal on paper, no matter how different the situation may be when conscience is considered. After all, no one can accuse a company for having high ambitions and an eye for success.
Even as the lawsuits keep mounting, Facebook will find a way to defend itself in the sense that it trades with information on the internet, which in turn makes a whole bunch of companies count as its rivals. When it comes to the legal clauses, there are enough paths for Facebook to follow on its way to respite. The problem, however, lies with the way it treats the issue of data and data collection. It finds nothing wrong with the way it conducts business, and with no specific regulations in place, will continue to do so.
While one direct solution to this would be an appeal to users to refrain from the app, it is unlikely that such an appeal would lead to a blanket failure of the Facebook Study programme. For one, it is more difficult to explain the consequences of such privacy-debilitating apps to young users which is Facebook’s target group. Secondly, with Facebook offering monetary rewards for participating in the programme, every college student would find it to be a programme sans malice.
After all, it is easier to trust a brand that is as credible as Facebook, and a majority of the youth would not find it to be non-objectionable — after all, how sensitive can a teen’s chat logs even be?