It’s the Wrong Time for a Facebook Surveillance Device
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Facebook Inc. constantly asks its users how they’re feeling about the social network. Those temperature checks of more than 2 billion people must give the company evidence that it has passed the peak of public suspicion stirred by its fumbles in protecting people’s digital information, doubts about the company’s political motives, and scandals about its role as a tool for foreign propagandists, conspiracy theorists and violent mobs.
Facebook knows its audience — or at least it has a lot of information about it. But I think Facebook is still misreading the mood.
With the debut of the Portal device and its sibling, the Portal+, the company has apparently decided that now is the right time to persuade Americans to put Facebook microphones, data-harvesting technologies and video cameras inside their homes. To which I say — nope. And also, why?
Remember that the company has forever tried to bat down conspiracy theories that it taps smartphone microphones to collect information about people’s phone calls and private conversations. CEO Mark Zuckerberg even had to address that question from members of Congress. When people already suspect that Facebook is spying on them, it is a bridge too far to ask them to plant a literal Facebook listening device in their homes.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in the spring found that a large share of Americans reported taking breaks from using Facebook. Another Pew poll found a majority of Americans of all political affiliations believe social networks censor political speech that the companies find objectionable. In North America, daily use of Facebook has flatlined, although it’s not clear that is a result of its image problem. None of this is solid proof that Facebook’s many scandals have turned people away from using the social network, but they are data points that people may not like or trust Facebook wholeheartedly.
Again, Facebook may have a better handle on people’s faith in Facebook products than anyone else, including me. Or the company may be blind to public sentiment. I was stunned that after months of controversy about how Facebook mishandled people’s personal information, Zuckerberg, in an interview in May with Wired, seemed surprised at a question about possible public backlash to a Facebook online dating service he had just announced.
It’s possible that even as Zuckerberg and others at Facebook apologize at every turn for violating the public’s trust, they still don't really grasp how much they violated the public’s trust. It wouldn’t be the first time that Facebook’s instincts are wrong.
Facebook isn’t completely clueless. The company is savvy enough to address doubts up front about data-privacy protections for the Portal devices. Contrast that with Amazon.com Inc., which last month announced a dizzying number of new gadgets powered by the company’s Alexa voice-activated software. Amazon didn’t devote a single moment to talking about protecting the information of people who elect to put an all-knowing, always-listening Amazon data-harvesting device in their homes and cars. Given the justified public concerns about digital privacy, this was a stunning omission by Amazon.
Facebook has far more baggage than Amazon, of course. Credit Facebook for making its video chat devices less creepy than they could have been, but that doesn’t make them creepy-free. The public is already inclined to be wary about Facebook and its intentions. That’s why it makes little sense for Facebook to test people’s fragile faith when it has relatively little to gain.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
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