A Facebook Privacy Breakthrough
A new application on Facebook gives users, for the first time, ironclad control over the data they post on the social-networking site.
uProtect.it, as the application is known, has not been announced by its creator, the small security company Reputation.com, but was reported in The Wall Street Journal’s Digits Blog on Monday. I ran into CEO Michael Fertik Tuesday night in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum, where Reputation.com, formerly known as ReputationDefender, has been honored as a so-called Tech Pioneer, one of a small number of startups so designated each year and given a chance to attend the Davos conference. Fertik was excited about the potential of his new application, which enables users to carefully restrict who sees their status updates, photos, or videos, and which he says remains in the early stages of development. The Journal appears to have forced him a bit out of the closet, and he told me more about the product and its potential.
Giving full control over the disposition of a user’s content on Facebook into his or her hands is likely to be very popular. While Facebook itself offers a variety of privacy protections, its controls are often difficult to use, and it is by no means always clear who will or won’t see a supposedly protected item. As the author of a history of the company called The Facebook Effect, I speak to audiences regularly about the impacts and future of Facebook. The issue of how to retain control over personal data never fails to emerge with any audience. And having just spent four days in Germany, I can attest that concern over this issue prevails there in public discussion over almost all other aspects of Facebook. Germans fear having a company deciding what happens to their data.
Separately, giving users fuller control of their Facebook privacy seems even more important in the wake of the recent popular revolt in Tunisia, which was fueled largely by activism on Facebook. As articles like The Atlantic’s about Tunisia note, human-rights activists are increasingly asking Facebook to make provisions to protect people who speak out against repressive regimes on the service. Facebook refuses to allow people to use pseudonyms, so speech under our own names requires close control. uProtect.it could give activists control so local secret police would not be able to see what they were saying on Facebook, as they now routinely seek to do. “You want to help the guys in Tunisia?” asks Fertik. “Here’s your tool.”
“This is the delete button for the Internet,” says Fertik. Users can even schedule certain posts to expire at a specific time.
Once users install the uProtect.it Facebook application, they can select to use it sometimes or always. If I do so, the status updates or photos I post will initially appear to my Facebook friends as only “David made a protected post.” If users have the application installed and they are allowed by the poster to see the post, then it becomes readable. If they don’t have the app, they see a link that enables them to download it. If they install the app but aren’t on the sender’s list to view the update, they remain out of luck.
“This is a private network on Facebook,” says Fertik. “Putin and Obama could have a conversation there and nobody but the two of them could know what they’re saying.” One interesting corollary capability is that if users want to retract access from someone who formerly could see an update or photo, uProtect.it lets you do so. “This is the delete button for the Internet,” says Fertik. Users can even schedule certain posts to expire at a specific time. That might be useful, for instance, for political activists who scheduled a demonstration using Facebook but wanted to be untraceable after it occurred.
Fertik appears nervous about how Facebook will respond to his company’s innovation. The social network can and often does shut down applications that it does not approve or that in some way violate its terms of service. “Mark Zuckerberg talks about the importance of privacy,” Fertik says, “and this is a tool that gives people real privacy choice.” Fertik says if Zuckerberg understands the uProtect.it app, he is likely to approve it. (I have not yet succeeded in reaching a Facebook spokesperson for comment)
The application is free, and Fertik says it will remain so. The way Reputation.com hopes to make money is by using the consumer awareness the app generates to upsell users to its paid suite of privacy services. The company will, for a few dollars a month, remove users’ name from unflattering databases and massage the way they appear in search results.
Fertik points out that there has been a lot of excitement in the tech community about a social-networking product called Diaspora, intended to be an open-source service that enables users to control where their own information resides, even as they retain the ability to share it selectively with others. uProtect.it brings that exact capability to Facebook. The posts users make with the product do not reside on Facebook’s servers. For now they are on Reputation.com’s, and Fertik says in the near future the company will make it possible for users to put their posts on servers they personally control. He also foreswears any desire to make money with the data that his system sequesters.
“What we’re trying to build is a privacy economy,” says Fertik. He notes that in many places, including Germany, there are growing concerns that regulation may be necessary to ensure that Facebook data about individuals is handled sensitively. “This could be a great way for Facebook to avoid regulation,” he continues, “because this gives power back to the users in a big way.”
David Kirkpatrick writes about technology for the Daily Beast. A former Fortune reporter, he is the author of The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World.