Facebook Home: Are you surrendering your data on a silver platter?

It is easy to be all excited about something new. But a deeper thought usually brings out aspects you may not have realized at first. With Facebook Home, the biggest issue is that of privacy. And don't let anyone kid you that it isn't.

Published Date
05 - Apr - 2013
| Last Updated
05 - Apr - 2013
 
Facebook Home: Are you surrendering your data on a silver platter...

No, there is no Facebook phone. Now that it is clear and we have that out of the way, let us talk about the latest bit of development to come out of the Facebook office. This is Facebook Home, and before people start gasping for breath, let us specify that it is just a launcher. Something that gives your lock screen and home screen a new look and different set of features, essentially. There are dime a dozen launchers available on the Google Play store, but this one makes Facebook access more in-your-face.

New Wine, in a Vodka Bottle?
As described by the company, Facebook Home has:

Cover feed: With Home, people can immediately access your app content from their News Feed once they turn on their phone. We also make it easy for people to engage with your content as they can simply double tap to like a post and comment right from cover feed. At launch, Open Graph stories with user generated photos will be supported in cover feed. Click here for a complete list of the story types that cover feed supports now.

Notifications: People will receive bigger, bolder notifications from you right on their phone home screen. We’ve made improvements to notifications to make them more engaging and easier for people to interact with. It’s never been easier to reengage with people using your app.

Chat heads: We’ve optimized messaging so that people can seamlessly receive messages in a non-intrusive fashion while they're using your apps. This will help improve engagement as it lets people jump in and out of conversations without ever having to leave your app.

App launcher: Home’s launcher makes it easy for people to get to your apps quickly. People choose what's on their app launcher and it’s simple for them to get your app in there.

Serious Privacy Concerns
While the active users will be quite taken in by the idea of having a “post an update” button almost everywhere on the phone’s UI, or the ability to Like a friend’s photograph, it does come with a serious set of risks. It was already out in the open that Facebook probably knows more about you than you may realize. All those status updates, posts on other people’s updates, picture uploads and tags, those addictive apps and games – Facebook picked up every little bit of information it could, all this time. Hence, the gradual addition of advertising on the web version and subsequently the mobile versions last year. Facebook Connect and Graph Search are all relying on that chunk of data it has saved in that red file with your name on it. All this data being collected is not going to solve the world’s problems, or make your day any better. Yes, Facebook will keep users happy by rolling out some glossy features from time to time, but the main use of this data will be for advertising and making money.

But, if you thought all that was invasive, it pales in comparison to what Facebook Home could do. First up, it basically sits on the operating system and will now have access to a wealth of data that was previously inaccessible to it. For example, your Gmail could be peeked into. Your web browsing habits on the phone can be logged, and even keep tabs on what apps you are using for exactly what. The worst is possibly the access to all your SMSes, which means Facebook can read the conversations that you wanted to keep off the social network in the first place.

GigaOm’s Om Malik raises another issue in this write-up. He says, “But there is a bigger worry. The phone’s GPS can send constant information back to the Facebook servers, telling it your whereabouts at any time. So if your phone doesn’t move from a single location between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. for say a week or so, Facebook can quickly deduce the location of your home. Facebook will be able to pinpoint on a map where your home is, whether you share your personal address with the site or not. It can start to build a bigger and better profile of you on its servers. It can start to correlate all of your relationships, all of the places you shop, all of the restaurants you dine in and other such data. The data from accelerometer inside your phone could tell it if you are walking, running or driving. As Zuckerberg said — unlike the iPhone and iOS, Android allows Facebook to do whatever it wants on the platform, and that means accessing the hardware as well.” Very scary indeed.

Advertising is how Facebook earns its money, not features that end consumers use. Like how adverts were seamlessly integrated into the desktop and the mobile versions, it is not outlandish to assume that the same will also happen with Home, at a later date. The current version does not have any adverts, but the idea of them on your phone’s home screen at a later date is rather creepy.

“We’re designing and working on a lot of really high-quality ad units in feed already,” Facebook product director Adam Mosseri said at the Home launch event. “We will bring those to Cover Feed and make sure they are aligned with the aesthetic and quality bar of everything else in Cover Feed.”

It is all fair and simple to say that if someone wants privacy, they need to get off the Internet. But in this case, the Internet is coming to you, your phone to be precise, and logging data that you never wanted to probably share anyway. Look, we are not for one minute saying that Facebook Home is not an app that you should not use, but this is more about letting you know what the pitfalls are. We like to use Facebook, but not to the extent of surrendering all the phone’s data to it.

Other Issues with Facebook Home
While it was promised that it’ll be a revolution, Facebook Home is hardly that. What it simply does is makes Facebook more in your face, with something essentially an Android launcher. Again, this raises a few questions.

The oft used term of “Facebook fatigue” could again be in focus, since Facebook will pretty much be everywhere on your phone. The addicts (and the trolls) may love it, but for everyone else, it will just be an annoyance, and might reduce productivity that we usually get after having customized the launcher according to our needs.

Keeping in mind Mark Zuckerberg’s criticism of Apple’s closed ecosystem, it is safe to assume that there will be no iOS version of Facebook Home anytime soon. Apple will never allow Facebook Home, or any other app for that matter, the amount of control that it gets on Android. Specifically, a launcher type of app, which modifies the native interface of the operating system, is not allowed on iOS, which Apple has built with its own design principles geared towards ease of use and simplicity.

At first, Facebook Home will only be available on a handful of high end Android phones, and the HTC First, that will be launched in select markets only. To get traction, more phones will have to be added to the compatibility list.

There is also the fear that Facebook Home will overwhelm the resources available on most phones. It is safe to say that this amount of data transfer and live wallpapers with your friends’ pictures will drain the phone’s battery much quicker. Are you ready for that sacrifice?

It does seem that a Facebook OS will surely be a reality in the future, and this is just the starting step.

The Facebook Home app will be available on the U.S. Play Store from April 12, with the global rollout expected soon after. For one, we are not looking forward to installing this on our phones.
 

Vishal MathurVishal Mathur

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