Will Facebook have a home for privacy?

Facebook Home officially launches Friday and privacy is (not surprisingly) the nagging question.
Written by John Fontana, Contributor on

This Friday, Android phone users have an important privacy decision to make. That is the day Facebook Home is available.

Do users care if Facebook becomes the doorman to their device? Or do they want to preserve that duty for the lock-screen they know is benign?

No longer just another mobile app, Home widens the area of digital life Facebook can see, collect and track. Home improves the so-called "frictionless" collection of data, which should raise questions, if not red flags.

Home appears to be a better way for Facebook to gather information about the user, which certainly provides more resources for what fills Facebook's balance sheet: serving up ads, especially in a point-in-time way. In fact, investors liked it, bidding up Facebook shares 3% the day Home was announced.

Will Facebook unduly exploit these new opportunities? Will users trust them not to? Will regulators be stopping by for a check-up?

Facebook is the poster child for an ongoing, worldwide privacy debate, and Home is more fuel for a fire burning across tech pubs, privacy and user groups, and world governments.

To deflect fears and some recent scolding critiques of Home, Facebook's Michael Richter, chief privacy officer for product, and Erin Egan, chief privacy officer for policy, published a Q&A last Friday about Home and privacy.

They addressed location and data collection, along with the amount of visibility Facebook would have in app use and a user's ongoing device activity. The answers in their Q&A look like more of the same genre of privacy concerns some users — and many governments — have had all along with Facebok.

On April 5, Egan was also the guest on Facebook's second installment of its "Ask the CPO" video segment, in which she answered questions for nearly 30 minutes on data collection, filters, bugs and fake accounts. She also received some touching feedback from her dad via her personal Facebook page — which ironically seems carefully devoid of personal information.

The jobs occupied by Richter and Egan, both lawyers, were created in Nov. 2011 in the wake of a privacy complaint settlement between the Federal Trade Commission and the social networking giant. So the pair know the privacy score.

But the playing field doesn't seem to be changing much. Home looks to be more of the same types of tracking and privacy pitfalls that have previously invited intense scrutiny and legal settlements.

The major difference between Home and the traditional Facebook app seems to be the option to have an "always-on" Facebook. One that is organizing, tracking and culling your activity and providing that plugged-in social feeling that is the draw of the social network; a draw for real-time retail offers and location knowledge on friends as much as it is for "socializing."

Home collects "Likes," comments and messages that you send, but it also keeps a list of apps you have in Home's app launcher. This app launcher can see what you launch, but not what you did, unless users have already integrated those apps with Facebook.

Home pre-installed on devices can display system notifications, and Facebook collects which app is generating them (but not the content of the app). This information is cleaned out every 90 days, according to Facebook.

Location is used in the same way as it is in the mobile Facebook app, and users can toggle off location via their device settings.

The data that Facebook receives is covered by Facebook's current data usage policy, a document that is at best a moving target.

But privacy groups are concerned.

Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Parker Higgins told Digital Trends, "They will get information about who you're calling, how often, and how long you're speaking to them. That's a lot of information, and combined with the rest of your Facebook communications, (it) could paint a very clear picture of your private life."

I salute those who will pilot Facebook Home — they are the canaries in a coal mine that has already produced noxious fumes. We'll check in with you when (and if) you leave the mine with your privacy intact.

Editorial standards