“The future is private,” Mark Zuckerberg declared at Facebook’s F8 conference keynote yesterday. He went on to discuss the importance of building “private” online “living rooms,” an analog for direct messages and Facebook Groups, to contrast the “public square” of the News Feed.
Zuckerberg described a number of new initiatives in this “future is private” push, including encrypted, and even ephemeral, Facebook messaging features, as well as an ephemeral “status” feature (similar to Instagram or Facebook Stories) for WhatsApp. WhatsApp messages have always been end-to-end encrypted, and Zuckerberg noted they would stay that way. He emphasized several times that Facebook will not be able to see the content of this material, saying it was private “even from us” several times about several features, and emphasizing the words “safety” and “secure.”
But what his presentation elided was the fact that Facebook does not need to see the content of what people are saying in order to advertise to them. The metadata — who, or what (as in a business), you’re talking to, and even where you are or what time the conversation is taking place as it comes together with other pieces of information — provides more than enough information to make a very educated guess about what you’re interested in, to the point that knowing specifically what you are saying adds almost nothing.
The value of metadata, not just in advertising but in building an understanding of a person, has been well-studied for years; Facebook is neither inventing it nor even just beginning to use it. It’s easy to forget that while Facebook builds all of these “private” features into its own products, it still has not only an immense body of information that we gave to it freely in its earlier days, but also an extremely robust tracking apparatus across the entire Internet.