October 3, 2020 | technology | No Comments
“Privacy matters,” Facebook declared on Wednesday, September 30, before announcing major updates to its Instagram and Messenger platforms, enabling each of the billion-plus user bases to communicate across the divide. You’re allowed a wry smile at this point. This has nothing to do with privacy and everything to do with data. “Messaging should be fast, reliable and fun,” Facebook went on to say, “no matter what app you use.” There’s a new messaging war now underway as the hyper-scale platforms become goldmines. And Facebook is winning.
The gorilla in the messaging cage is WhatsApp, of course, also owned by Facebook, and while CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced last year that all his messengers, WhatsApp included, would hook up at the back-end, WhatsApp is out of the mix for now. Neither Instagram’s direct messaging nor Facebook Messenger encrypt end-to-end by default, and rather than throwing resource into fixing that real problem, it seems Facebook’s engineers are solving the non-problem of an Instagram and Messenger back-end tie-up.
Facebook is now working on trying to find some way for WhatsApp and Messenger to integrate on some level—these are the two giants of the messaging world and the combination would be unstoppable. But there is no easy way to do this without compromising the security of one or the reach and simplicity of the other. Messenger has been designed as an easy-to-use, multi-platform convenience, it seems the work involved to secure its architecture could take several years.
Meanwhile, users on Messenger and Instagram will now be able to reach each other, and Instagram DM users will get Messenger’s bells and whistles to add to their messaging. “You don’t need a Facebook account to use the new Messenger experience on Instagram or to message across apps,” Facebook says. “People who use Messenger, as well as people new to Instagram, will automatically get the new messaging experience.”
There’s clearly a huge overlap between the two user-bases, but many of the too cool for school brigade who reject Facebook are on Instagram, and, conversely, there’s a huge number of Facebook users who turn to Messenger by default—quite literally in many cases if they’re on Android, but who don’t have an Instagram account. For the mathematically minded. Facebook just shaded in all three segments of a Venn diagram.
Why is this important? Well, imagine the missed revenue opportunity for Facebook from not knowing that Person A on Messenger is friends with Person B on Instagram—and if Person A has just bought or searched for a particular gadget, how can Facebook know to advertise that same product to Person B. More broadly those AI-analysed datasets with their trillions of datapoints have just expanded.
“We will continue to respect your existing privacy settings,” Facebook promises, “and private accounts will work the same way they do today.” But now for the money shot. “As with other parts of Facebook,” the company acknowledges, “we collect information from Instagram and Messenger primarily to provide the service, improve the product experience, and keep people safe and secure. We don’t use the content of messages between people on Messenger and Instagram for ad targeting, which means advertisers can’t target you based on what you say in messages.”
Allow me to translate: We don’t read the specific keywords you message to one another, but we do collect and use the metadata. If I know who knows who, who speaks to who and how often, and then cross-reference that with all the other connection points and web tracking and other data sources I have, then I am more likely to sell my customers those people as targets for ads that will successfully convert to sales. You’re not the customer, the advertiser is the customer. You’re the product that changes hands between Facebook and its customer.
Facebook is rolling out a full set of controls: “Who can reach you and how—the new privacy settings will let you decide who reaches your Chats list, who goes to your Message Request folder, and who can’t message or call you at all. For example, someone on Instagram can choose not to receive messages from people on Facebook.” There will also be the platform’s newly improved set of safety notices, analysing metadata to try to warn when messaging is inappropriate, for example adults reaching out to minors. All that’s clearly a sensible step.
So, should you use the new updated integration or stick to using Instagram DMs and Facebook Messenger in isolation? Actually, neither. As I’ve said in regards to both platforms, you should stop messaging your friends on either and switch instead to an end-to-end encrypted platform like WhatsApp. Not only are these far less intrusive in the metadata they track and monetise, but your data is fully secured. Don’t just take my word for it—Facebook itself has warned users that without end-to-end encryption, data may be at risk and you would be well-advised to take heed.