Two weeks ago, Mark Zuckerberg penned an essay detailing Facebook’s shift towards a more privacy-focused platform. “As I think about the future of the internet,” he writes, “I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms.” For Zuckerberg, this predominantly means focusing efforts more on his private messaging services (Facebook Messenger, Instagram Direct, and Whatsapp) by including end-to-end encryption across all platforms.
But given mirad privacy scandals plaguing Facebook over the past few years, it is important to look critically at what Zuckerberg is outlining. Many of the critiques of Zuckerberg that have been written focus primarily on the monopolistic power-grab that he introduces under the term “interoperability.” For Zuckerberg, this means integrating private communications across all of Facebook’s messaging platforms. From a security perspective, the idea is to be able to standardize end-to-end encryption across a diversity of messaging platforms (including SMS), but, as the MIT Technology Review points out, this amounts to little more than a heavy-handed centralization of power: “If his plan succeeds, it would mean that private communication between two individuals will be possible when Mark Zuckerberg decides that it ought to be, and impossible when he decides it ought not to be.”
However, without downplaying this critique, what seems just as if not more concerning is concept of privacy that Zuckerberg is advocating for. In the essay, he speaks about his turn towards messaging platforms as a shift from the town square to the “digital equivalent of a living room,” in which our interactions are more personal and intimate. Coupled with end-to-end encryption, the idea is that Facebook will create a space in which our communications are kept private.
But they won’t, because Zuckerberg fundamentally misrepresents how privacy works. Today, the content of what you say is perhaps the least important aspect of your digital identity. Instead, it is all about the metadata. In terms of communication, the who, the when, and the where can tell someone more about you then simply the what. Digital identities are constructed less by what we think and say about ourselves, and far more through a complex network of information that moves and interacts with other elements within that network. Zuckerberg says that “one great property of messaging services is that even as your contacts list grows, your individual threads and groups remain private,” but who, for example, has access to our contact lists? These are the type of questions that Zuckerberg sidesteps in his essay, but are the ones that show how privacy actually functions today.
Like a living room, we can concede that end-to-end encryption will give users more confidence that their messages will only be seen by the person or people within that space. But digital privacy does not function on a “public vs. private sphere” model. If it is a living room, it has the equivalent of a surveillance team stationed outside, recording who enters, how long they stay there for, how that room is accessed, etc. For all his failings, we would be wrong to assume that Zuckerberg is ignorant of the importance of metadata. In large part he has built is fortune on it. What we see in his essay, then, is little more than a not-so-subtle misdirect.