Your Data

How to target a specific individual on Facebook; Zuckerberg's Messenger archives quietly deleted; and more.


  • Life in Facebookistan: Speaking to Vox’s Ezra Klein a few days ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pointed to the company’s detection and blocking of malicious messages flowing through Messenger from inside Myanmar, inciting Muslims and Buddhists to arm themselves and go fight each other, as an example of how it is taking seriously its role in that country’s civil strife. A group of civil society organizations led by Phandeeyar has released an open letter responding to this claim. They write:

    “As representatives of Myanmar civil society organizations and the people who raised the Facebook Messenger threat to your team’s attention, we were surprised to hear you use this case to praise the effectiveness of your ‘systems’ in the context of Myanmar. From where we stand, this case exemplifies the very opposite of effective moderation: it reveals an over-reliance on third parties, a lack of a proper mechanism for emergency escalation, a reticence to engage local stakeholders around systemic solutions and a lack of transparency. Far from being an isolated incident, this case further epitomizes the kind of issues that have been rife on Facebook in Myanmar for more than four years now and the inadequate response of the Facebook team.

    The group points out that “far from being stopped,” the malicious messages “spread country-wide, causing widespread fear and at least three violent incidents in the process.”

  • Facebook responded to the groups’ criticism, Paul Mozur reports for The New York Times, saying “We are sorry that Mark did not make clearer that it was the civil society groups in Myanmar who first reported these messages. We took their reports very seriously and immediately investigated ways to help prevent the spread of this content. We should have been faster, and are working hard to improve our technology and tools to detect and prevent abusive, hateful or false content.”

  • For what it’s worth, Facebook’s failure to build a global team capable of responding in real time to problems on its platform is not new. Human rights organizers have been complaining about the company’s lack of a serious reporting system for years. Recall that it took special efforts, for example, for Egyptian organizer Wael Ghonim to regain control of his “We are All Khaled Said” Facebook page back in the weeks just before the January 25 revolution.

  • “Our service depends on your data,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told the Today Show’s Savannah Guthrie yesterday. If you wanted to opt out of letting advertisers target you based on your profile data, “that would be a paid product,” she declared.

  • If you read the transcript of Sandberg’s interview yesterday with Steve Inskeep of NPR carefully, you’ll note how artfully she dodges his question about the company’s core business model. “We don’t sell data, period,” she declares, “and we don’t give any advertisers your personal information.” That’s correct: the company monopolizes access to that information, which is the even more invidious move.

  • As alpha geek Dave Troy points out, you can target an individual for an ad on Facebook if you know their user ID number. He is suggesting that the company create new IDs for all of its users and only allowing entities that have agreed to its new terms of service access to them.

  • Facebook is accepting comments on its Terms of Service and Data Policy updates through next Wednesday. Submit them here.

  • Here are highlights of some of Facebook’s recent patent applications, complied by Jeremy Ashkenas of Observable. As indicators of corporate intent, the list shows the company dreaming of building an even more intrusive surveillance machine. One creepy example, a patent for a “user influence score” which “can be decreased when the sender is reported to be associated, within a specified time period, with other users who are reported to be associated with undesired content.”

  • Virtual reality developer Chet Faliszek points out that Facebook’s plans for its Oculus VR headset include tracking and storing all device motion and location information, and imagines a future where the company sells political ads based on who or what you’ve encountered in real life.

  • At least 1.75 million Facebook users in the Philippines and 1.1 million in Indonesia may have had their data harvested by Cambridge Analytica, Tim Burrowes reports for Mumbrella Asia. Around a half million each in India and Vietnam and 300,000 in Australia may also have been exposed.

  • As recently as last month, Facebook was engaged in secret talks with hospitals and medical schools seeking to collect data that would allow it to build profiles of people including their medical conditions, Christina Farr reports for CNBC. Medical data on patient’s illnesses and prescriptions would be matched to their social data from Facebook, using hashing to obscure their actual names. Aneesh Chopra, president of a health software company called CareJourney and a former White House CTO, said, “I would be wary of efforts that repurpose user data without explicit consent.” The project was recently put on hold, Facebook says, “so we can focus on other important work, including doing a better job of protecting people’s data and being clearer with them about how that data is used.”

  • Old Facebook messages sent by CEO Mark Zuckerberg have been removed from recipients Facebook inboxes, while their own replies remain, Josh Constine reports for Techcrunch. Facebook admits the practice but claims it was done after the Sony Pictures email hack, and that it included “limiting the retention period for Mark’s messages in Messenger.” As Constine notes, “Facebook never publicly disclosed the removal of messages from users’ inboxes, nor privately informed the recipients.”

  • Has anyone asked Facebook and Google why they helped Secure America Now, a secretive group funded by billionaire Robert Mercer, target ads at voters in swing states in 2016 that claimed that America was on the verge of the imposition of Sharia law?

  • Longtime ProPublica privacy reporter Julia Angwin, who has exposed many of Facebook’s failures, talked to regulatory experts to compile this list of reforms that might begin to fix what is broken about the tech industry and user data. It’s a good but very modest list.

  • There’s no word on whether the Egyptian family that named their newborn daughter Facebook after the 2011 revolution has any regrets.

  • This is civic tech: In other news, New York Times’ columnist David Brooks read Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms’ new book New Power and sees in it evidence that “people are ingenious” and they are figuring out how to “redeem the broader social fabric” building on local ties of trust.

  • Code for Atlanta is calling on the city to publish a “blameless postmortem” on the ransomware attack that paralyzed city services for several days.