It’s no secret that the recent Cambridge Analytica controversy involving Facebook has made issues regarding data privacy front and center in many people’s minds. The Mozilla company, responsible for the production of web browser Firefox, has recently released an extension for their browser that limits how much data Facebook can collect about your internet activity.
The extension has been called the Facebook Container by Mozilla, and its purpose is to prevent Facebook from monitoring your activity on other websites, something the social media network does regularly. This would theoretically have the effect of limiting the number of targeted advertisements and messages one would see in their news feed, among other things.
The Need For A Facebook Container
As a recap, Cambridge Analytica is a data analytics firm with reported ties to the Steve Bannon, who was heavily involved in the Trump campaign during 2016. Cambridge Analytica did digital advertising for the Trump campaign, using private Facebook data gathered from tens of millions of Facebook users.
Cambridge Analytica gained information on Facebook users through the creators of an app called “thisisyourdigitallife”, which made us of Facebook’s login feature. Users of this app agreed to the terms of service and therefore provided the app creators access to data about them, including their location, email account, friends list, and more. At the time the app was created, Facebook allowed developers to access some data about friends of those who had used the app, thus expanding the data gathered on users to around 50 million people. The creators of the app then shared this data with Cambridge Analytica.
Facebook has said that this doesn’t constitute a data breach, as there was no unauthorized penetration of their servers or databases. It has pinned the blame on the creators of the app, who it contends misused the data and violated their terms of service by distributing the data to third parties. Facebook has recently made revisions to their terms of service, limiting the amount of information third parties are capable of collecting through the service.
This is important because until quite recently, developers of third-party Facebook apps were able to gain information about the general internet usage habits of Facebook users. This is possible because Facebook itself amasses information about a user’s general internet usage. The company has reportedly even created many “shadow profiles”, through the collection of data on people who aren’t users of the service.
Mozilla’s Data Privacy Extension
Mozilla is looking to provide a service to people who still want to use Facebook but don’t want the service collecting information about their activity off the platform. When users of the extension login to Facebook, the extension generates a special “container tab”. The tab runs Facebook as normal but prevents Facebook from pulling specific kinds of data regarding a person’s web usage. If one were to click on a Facebook share button from another tab, the share would be loaded into the container tab, and Facebook would only receive data about the site you shared the link from. Hitting a non-Facebook link within the container or manually switching to another site would exit the user from the container.
While the Facebook Container will help users of Facebook limit what data the company can collect on them, it may also impact some Facebook functionalities. Those who use Facebook to login to other websites may experience difficulties doing so, and embedded content like Facebook comments may no longer work. The general look of the site might change for some users as well. The Mozilla press release notes that since the container prevents the network from associating outside activity without your account “it may look different than what you are used to seeing.”
A Bigger Problem With Data Privacy
Zeynep Tufecki, associate professor at University of North Carolina’s School of Information and Library Science, argues that the problem goes deeper than any one company or person and that the core issue that involves incentives and business models. She says that a business model based on data surveillance that does extensive profiling will “inevitably be misused”. Tufecki argues that just leaving Facebook isn’t a viable solution either. Tufecki says that Facebook and Facebook products make up most of the internet in some countries, making efforts to leave the platform impractical.
Tufecki says of Facebook’s ubiquity:
Some employers and landlords demand to see Facebook profiles, and there are increasingly vast swaths of public and civic life — from volunteer groups to political campaigns to marches and protests — that are accessible or organized only via Facebook.
It took me about three tries to completely turn off Google location tracking. I kept thinking I had turned it completely off, and it would just pop back up. If I can't manage this, who is supposed to? I have a technical background and write/research about all this for a living.
— zeynep tufekci (@zeynep) March 26, 2018
In the meantime, Facebook has tweaked how it handles privacy settings. Similar to how the company created a tool to tell users if they had been exposed to Russian propaganda, Facebook is pushing out a new tool intended to make it easier to change settings and control what information you share.
The new tool will be called “Access Your Information” and it will allegedly be putting all of a user’s information in one place, with options to delete sections of information the user wants removed. The tool will be rolled out to users over the course of the next several weeks. If you use Facebook you may want to take a look at it.