Facebook wants your data, and magic legalese won't keep it away

You can pray to the gods of law, but they're selling your information regardless.

Facebook has long been a big player in the fight over privacy. Now, its latest proposed changes to its terms of service have been met with dismay from Facebook users and privacy advocacy groups alike.

Released on 21 November, the proposed changes would remove the "Who can send you Facebook messages” mechanism from the site’s privacy options, stop the system that allowed users to vote on changes to policy, and combine Facebook’s user data with that collected by Instagram, a photo-sharing app that the company purchased in April 2012.

In reaction to the proposals, two US campaign groups (the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy) sent a letter on the 27 November (pdf) addressed to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, condemning the company’s actions. The letter notes that the changes could “raise privacy risks for users”, “may be contrary to the law”, and are likely to “increase the amount of spam that users receive”. Facebook has so far declined to comment on these criticisms.

Of the proposed changes, the amendment that will have the most impact on users is the company’s decision to pool personal information between Instagram and Facebook. Previously such data was “siloed”, meaning that engineers and marketers working at one couldn’t access information from the other, even if it was about the same person. Under the new policy such data would be compiled into a single unified profile, accessible to advertisers on either site.

This change casts the $1bn Facebook paid for Instagram, a price that many thought was too much, in a new light. Facebook will be collecting geolocation data, a valuable metric for marketers, from its new subsidiary. Users of the app who answered "yes" to the question "Can Instagram use your location?" have been tagging each picture they take with their precise coordinates; the changes to the terms of service allow this data to be synced with individuals’ Facebook profile, even if the user turned off geotagging on that site.

This integration would a boon to advertisers, as data about where you live allows them to guess about other aspects your life, like how much money you make and what you are likely to buy. And this exchange of information works both ways - Instagram ads that had previously been targeted to individuals using only rough geographical data can now be further "personalised" using details from Facebook. This new system makes perfect economic sense for the company, even if it does directly contravene a previous commitment Zuckerberg had made to “building and growing Instagram independently”.

It is important to note that Facebook is not alone in this more-the-merrier approach to your personal information. In January 2012 Google also changed its privacy policy so that it could aggregate data that had been "siloed" in separate services, creating unified user profiles with information culled from Gmail, YouTube, and Google+. Facebook is not unusually mercantile in its proposed policy changes; it is merely following the crowd.

The changes have also worried Facebook’s own users, with many reacting by updating their statuses with a bizarre "privacy notice"; three copy-and-pasted paragraphs that supposedly safeguard one’s personal data “under the protection of copyright laws”. Facebook has already posted a statement refuting the meme, and Snopes have also addressed the issue, pointing out that short of leaving the site or “bilaterally [negotiating] a modified policy with Facebook” (please do try), there is no way of altering the terms and policies you have already agreed to. Fortunately for users these agreements never gave away "copyright" protection in the first place.

The cargo-cult legalese of this meme is entertaining in itself (one variation I saw ended with the arcane incantation of “Notice to Agent is Notice to Principal. Notice to Principal is Notice to Agent”), but it also shows an ingrained misunderstanding of how privacy policy on the internet functions. The public’s reaction to these sorts of incidents is characterized by a sort of suspicious ignorance (we don’t know what they’re up to, we just don’t trust ‘em), accompanied by the understandable but mistaken belief that as customers, we deserve to be listened to.

Facebook has marketed itself as a benevolent facilitator of community and friendship for so long that its customers forget that it is still a business, intent on turning a profit. The proposed policy changes are a sharp reminder of the truth, with all of them affirming the relentless logic of the bottom line: that is, the creation of rich packages of data (‘people’) that can be sold on to advertisers. And if some people are still coming to terms with this realisation that Facebook is no longer all about helping us to "connect and share with the people in our life", then I can see why the promises of a fix-all copy and paste spell are attractive. Unfortunately, they just don’t work.

Facebook! Photograph: Facebook

James Vincent is a journalist and writer. He is interested in technology's impact on society.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.