Facebook’s first CES reveal in years is a privacy tool that falls short

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Facebook’s privacy tools let you control who can see your email address and phone number (except from the social network itself). 


Angela Lang / CNET

This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

At CES 2020, Facebook plans to show off an innovative new concept for the company: privacy. It will have a booth at the tech show for giving demos on its updated Privacy Checkup tool, which it announced Monday morning. 

While privacy isn’t a shiny product like a TV or talking refrigerator that would typically be shown off at CES, it’s expected to have a major presence at the tech trade show this year, as tech companies face more scrutiny from policymakers. This year, Facebook and Apple are scheduled to speak on a panel about privacy. 

This is the first significant update to Facebook’s Privacy Checkup tool since it was created in 2014, four years before its major Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal broke. Following the scandal, in which an app harvested data from up to 87 million people without their knowledge, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified to Congress on how the social network planned to protect people’s privacy.

Since then, Facebook has made a public push on privacy, opening pop-up booths in cities around the world to teach people about their privacy settings on the social network. At CES, Facebook will be bringing that experience to Las Vegas.

“We know privacy is personal, and we’ve integrated privacy tips to help you make the right privacy decisions for you,” Facebook said in a statement. 

Facebook's Privacy Checkup tool

The update to Facebook’s Privacy Checkup spans four categories.


Facebook

The update to Privacy Checkup expands its categories from three to eight different groups, and four topics: 

  • Who can see what you share
  • How to keep your account secure
  • How people can find you on Facebook
  • Your data settings on Facebook     

The new tool gives people one central tab where they can change settings such as reviewing who can see your profile and send you friend requests, enabling two-factor authentication and reviewing permissions settings for third-party apps. 

Facebook said it introduced these categories based on issues that its users were most concerned about. The Data Settings category, for example, provides a convenient location where people can revoke permissions and access for apps and websites for which they’ve used Facebook to log in. But these updates don’t address data privacy issues that lawmakers have been raising about Facebook for years. 

Privacy on Facebook vs. privacy from Facebook

When Facebook was hit with a record $5 billion fine from the Federal Trade Commission in July, it was over issues like the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, using phone numbers intended for two-factor authentication for advertising and accidentally storing passwords in plaintext. 

The core of lawmakers’ privacy frustrations about Facebook aren’t about who can send you friend requests; they’re about data brokers and advertisers who can target entire groups of people using the social network. 

“We need to educate the public more on the different types of privacy concerns,” said Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who studies social media.  “There’s user interface issues, like how I’m being tagged, and greater privacy concerns that only regulators can get insight to, like how your profile is used to algorithmically shift what you see in your newsfeed.”

In November, Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, called Facebook out over its location data policies, arguing that the company still tracked people even when they weren’t using the app. In December, Facebook said that it would continue its web tracking activities despite California’s new data privacy law. 

Many of the privacy concerns surrounding Facebook are about privacy from the social network, not on it, which is what the Privacy Checkup tool is mainly addressing. 

If your concerns with Facebook are about who can see your photos, this is a great tool for you. But if you have issues how with Facebook tracks you, even when your account is deactivated, this won’t change much. 

Facebook did announce plans to roll out a tool to prevent online tracking called “Off-Facebook Activity.” That tool launched in August and is still rolling out globally, the company said. This is a separate tool and not a part of the Privacy Checkup tool that Facebook is promoting at CES. 

Unlike the Privacy Checkup tool, the Off-Facebook Activity feature, which Zuckerberg first promised in May 2018, would offer privacy from the social network itself. 

In Privacy Checkup, you can control who can see your phone number and email address, but it doesn’t give you the option to block Facebook or advertisers from seeing and using that same information. 

To do that, you’d have to go to a separate setting for Ad Control, which doesn’t have the same user-friendly design or interface that Privacy Checkup has.  

“There’s a disincentive to make that easier — anytime they inch closer to giving that feature to people, they’re going to lose revenue,” Grygiel said.    

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