Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg must be breathing a sigh of relief by now after a tough week marked by two days of grilling on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers seemed to struggle to understand how the platform really works, which highlights how little understanding most users probably have. Some are suggesting that Zuckerberg was not keen on actually explaining how the social network works, and a continuing lack of understanding could support that.
Is Facebook listening to us?
One line of questioning that was raised during this week’s congressional testimonies was about Facebook listening to users and tapping what is learned to target ads at them. A senator asked Zuckerberg whether Facebook monitors the messages he sends through WhatsApp, which the company also owns. Zuckerberg said the main platform isn’t able to see users’ WhatsApp messages, but that hasn’t calmed fears about Facebook listening in on conversations.
It’s certainly easy to see why users are so worried about the matter, but what most consumers don’t understand is just how much of their information is floating around online. In reality, many other tech companies could be just as guilty as Facebook of allowing user information to be accessible to whoever wants it, but unfortunately for Zuckerberg, Facebook is the one that was caught holding the bag.
Facebook isn’t the only one violating our “privacy”
For example, one of my friends who is in her 60s told me recently that she started receiving coupons for diapers in the mail last year after her adult children and small grandchildren stated with her over the summer. She doesn’t even have a Facebook account, and she believes the diaper coupons started to come because they had purchased diapers for her grandchild using her credit card.
Clearly, the social network is far from being the only source of privacy leaks, although it’s hard to fathom how anyone thought they had any privacy online at all. The reality is that “online privacy” is only a mirage because tech giants have had plenty of information on all of us for many years.
The Verge attempted to discount fears about Facebook listening to users through the microphones on their mobile devices, calling it “a myth.” Concerns about this issue reached a fever pitch recently when it was revealed that the company was logging call and text history. Many users have also started to notice just how closely ads target them based on phone conversations they had, but The Verge argues that it isn’t Facebook listening to our phones. Rather, it’s everything else we do, both online and offline, and my friend’s experience is just one such example of this.
Does Zuckerberg really want us to know how Facebook works?
It certainly seems like Facebook has much more power than what anyone realizes, like its ability to track users as they visit other websites and then show them ads related to content they looked up elsewhere. Facebook Pixel enables this to happen, and that’s just one example.
In an opinion piece for Bloomberg, Shira Ovide argued that Zuckerberg repeatedly dodged questions from lawmakers about how Facebook works and what it’s able to do. He came across as trying to avoid explaining how the network operates and what types of information it collects and how it is used. She noted that the social network tracks users across multiple devices and collects data from the websites and apps people use. It also takes information about where people are physically located and even tracks some people who don’t have Facebook accounts. With all those capabilities, it’s no wonder people are worried about Facebook listening in on them, but it also becomes clear that the company doesn’t even need to.
Call to bring back tech policy experts
NBC News’ Jessica Rosenworcel is calling for the U.S. to bring back the Office of Technology Assessment, a bipartisan government office that existed from 1972 until 1995 when lawmakers de-funded it at the beginning of the Internet era. The office contained Congress’ in-house tech experts. The office weighed in on various policy issues pertaining to new technology in various sector, providing advice to lawmakers who are tasked with writing laws for things they know little about.
This week’s congressional hearings with Zuckerberg made it very clear that lawmakers need a lot of help understanding new technologies if they’re going to write laws or regulation to govern them. The only question now is whether they will ever find the funding to bring back this office of experts or not, but I think most would agree that they need help of some sort when it comes to understanding technology.