Facebook says the future is private, but what does that mean?

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg | The future is private
Amy Osborne/Getty Images)

“The future is private,” declared Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on stage at Facebook F8 2019, the company’s annual developer conference. Only one problem – Facebook’s track record when it comes to privacy isn’t just spotty, it’s terrible, and as such the company has a seriously long way to go before it can win back the trust of the public and the privacy-conscious.

Facebook’s privacy push is a multi-tiered effort, and is unlikely to all manifest overnight. Not only that, but Facebook’s emphasis on privacy won’t just be on the main Facebook site either – it will also need to be in Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Oculus, and WhatsApp.

In other words, not only will Facebook need to make your browsing a little more private, it will need to make your messaging more private, too – and to further complicate the matter, the company is already trying to make its messaging services inter-operable.

At its F8 2019 keynote, Zuckerberg detailed six core pillars of what the new, privacy-focused Facebook will look like.

Private interactions

First up are private interactions. Gone are the days when Facebook wanted you to show off everything in and about your life in public — nowadays, a more mature Facebook recognizes that sometimes, you just want to keep some of your interactions with friends and family private, and shouldn’t have to want to share everything publicly. In other words, according to the “new Facebook,” users should have control over being able to share something with one or a few people, privately, and without prying eyes. And private interactions bleed over a little into encryption — after all, encryption is partly how user interactions will remain private.

So what does that mean for you? Well, hopefully much of ensuring an interaction is private will occur behind the scenes, but if nothing else it means you can have some assurance that Facebook isn’t eavesdropping on your conversations.

Encryption

facebook says the future is private but what does that mean whatsapp f8

It’s common to hear about “end-to-end encryption” when it comes to messaging, and one of Facebook’s products — WhatsApp — already offers it. But WhatsApp isn’t Facebook’s only messaging service, and if Facebook wants to ensure that you can message across any app to anyone, then adding end-to-end encryption to Facebook Messenger and Instagram Direct will be important. Facebook has said that it will make messaging in Messenger end-to-end encrypted — though it’s not clear exactly when that will happen.

Of course, encrypting your activity elsewhere across Facebook products will also be important. Information like what web pages you’re visiting, your location data from when you’re using Facebook, and so on, should all also be encrypted.

But what will encryption allow for? Well, it will essentially ensure that no one can see activity you want to keep private, except for you, and that should include Facebook. Right now, though, Facebook can pretty such see everything you do within Facebook’s services, but in a truly encrypted ecosystem that may no longer be the case.

Encryption is really the only way to ensure that users don’t need to worry about their messages and other data being spied on by Facebook or other third parties.

Reduced permanence

Snapchat pioneered ephemeral messaging, and then Facebook took that concept and ran with it. But it looks like the company could expand on the concept even further in the future. The idea here is that Facebook wants users to be able to be themselves online now, without having to worry about the decisions they make online coming back to bite them in the future.

For the end user, this could take a few forms. Not only could Facebook expand on the concept of content automatically disappearing after a certain amount of time, but it could also make it easier to remove content if and when a user wants to. Facebook itself notes that the idea of reduced permanence includes not keeping messages or stories longer than it takes to deliver the content to its recipient.

Safety

It would be hard to describe the internet as a truly “safe” place, especially for children and vulnerable people. Not only that, but it can be difficult to imagine what would make the internet safe. After all, adding encryption and reducing data permanence are much clearer, more concrete steps that Facebook can take — but simply “making Facebook safe” is a little vague.

Still, there are a few obvious things Facebook could do. For starters, the company could aim to reduce online bullying, by doing things like adding tools for users to prevent people from targeting them online or being able to continue targeting them online. Part of making Facebook a little safer could tie into the reduced permanence of content.

There are obvious benefits to both the end user and to Facebook when it comes to ensuring the Facebook ecosystem is safe. After all, if people feel safe on Facebook’s platform, they’re more likely to come back to Facebook more often, and enjoy using it when they do. That’s good for Facebook’s bottom line.

Interoperability

Mark Zuckerberg made waves earlier in the year when he described a world in which you could message someone on Facebook Messenger, and they could get that message in Instagram — but this looks to be a world we’ll one day live in. Facebook wants to tie all of its products together, and a big part of that is ensuring that its messaging services work well together. After all, if you have a Facebook account, post photos on Instagram, and message friends in WhatsApp, then you have no less than three messaging platforms, even if you don’t use all of them for messaging. If, however, you do use them all for messaging, then things are even more complicated — and you may often find yourself having to switch between apps depending on the person you’re messaging.

Facebook’s plan for interoperability has so far been a little vague, so we’ll have to wait and see exactly what it ends up looking like.

Secure data storage

facebook data report 2016 center servers
Hard drives within Facebook’s Luleå data center in Sweden

Even encrypted data can be hacked, but the goal is to ensure that the data itself is physically as safe as possible — and for Facebook, that might mean being very careful where it stores everything. For example, Facebook may not want to store data in countries where human rights policies aren’t as strong or where freedom of speech isn’t a right — reducing the likelihood that the data will be accessed and used improperly.

Of course, this could be a little more difficult than it sounds. After all, while some countries obviously have a clearly spotty track record with human rights, how do you judge many others? Not only that, but countries change policies and governments all the time — will that affect where Facebook opens or maintains data centers?

Unanswered questions

Facebook’s six core tenets for the future may all sound good, but there’s still a whole lot we don’t know about the future of the company. For starters, Facebook really didn’t outline any changes to how it collects user data, and the fact that Facebook is a company built on advertising means that it will always have an interest in collecting information about you. That said, hopefully the company can come up with a few ways to restrict that data, and maybe automate the process entirely to limit its access to your data, and and to ensure your data isn’t shared with others.

Only time will tell if Facebook can truly reinvent itself, and even if it does, there’s no guarantee that it’ll make for a Facebook that people want to use more. Still, Facebook has to do something — a recent study highlighted that the number of dead Facebook users could soon outnumber the living, and if Facebook does nothing, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

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