For years, critics have taken aim at Facebook's privacy missteps, from the Cambridge Analytica scandal to this week's revelation that Facebook has paid people—including minors—to let it spy on all of their online activity, potentially even including their encrypted private messages. Which makes it a potentially very big deal that over the last several weeks, the company has quietly hired three prominent privacy advocates, all outspoken critics, ostensibly to help right the ship.
"Whether they’ll be able to be effective inside what’s become a big bureaucracy that makes money off of knowing a ton about us remains to be seen."
Jennifer Granick, ACLU
These three people are lions in the world of data privacy. (WIRED has interviewed all three for various stories about privacy risks.) And they have been particularly vocal critics of Facebook. By bringing them in-house, Facebook sends the message that it’s going to give real decisionmaking power to people who deeply understand the ways in which the social media site and its family of apps undermine the privacy of its users. The open question is whether Facebook will actually listen.
Privacy advocates have so far struck a note of cautious optimism. "Nate, Robyn, and Nathan know the challenges, and they wouldn’t go to Facebook unless they saw a real opportunity to make a meaningful difference. They are all going to try to move fast and break things—to benefit privacy," said privacy expert and ACLU attorney Jennifer Granick in an email to WIRED. "Whether they’ll be able to be effective inside what’s become a big bureaucracy that makes money off of knowing a ton about us remains to be seen."
Jen King, director of consumer privacy at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society, thinks it's a sign Facebook may be ready to actually take privacy seriously. "It's possible that Facebook has finally gotten the memo and is really trying to make change," King told WIRED. She also noted, though, that Facebook has decided to bolster its privacy credentials fairly late in the game, especially given that its irresponsible handling of user data led to an Federal Trade Commission consent decree all the way back in 2011. The FTC is currently investigating allegations that Facebook has since broken those promises. But with increased scrutiny, and more regulatory power coming from Europe and elsewhere, Facebook has almost no other choice but to get with the program.
A skeptical view would hold that Facebook made the hires in part to silence three critics, and Facebook has certainly merited skepticism. But those who know the trio argue that they've joined in good faith, and would leave if they found themselves unable to effect positive change from within.
"Nate, Robyn, and Nathan ... are people of deep conviction," says David O'Brien, assistant research director for privacy and security at Harvard's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. "They also have strong moral compasses. I have to think they would not have accepted these roles at Facebook without being assured their contributions would be taken seriously."
Back in May, at the height of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, the company made a timely announcement: Facebook users would soon be able to clear the browsing history connected to their Facebook profile, meaning that the company would no longer link users to the apps and websites they visited off of the social network.
"Hiring a few people doesn't change culture, especially in an organization that has become as large and sprawling as Facebook."
David O'Brien, Harvard University
In the past, for instance, Cardozo has called Facebook "creepy," adding that its "business model depends on our collective confusion and apathy about privacy. That’s wrong, as a matter of both ethics and law." For years he worked on EFF's annual report ranking tech companies on how well they safeguard user privacy, which has often ranked WhatsApp and Facebook terribly. In December, Cardozo's colleagues at EFF concluded "Facebook has never deserved your trust."
“If you know me at all, you’ll know this isn’t a move I’d make lightly,” Cardozo wrote in a Facebook post announcing his new job. “After the privacy beating Facebook’s taken over the last year, I was skeptical too. But the privacy team I’ll be joining knows me well, and knows exactly how I feel about tech policy, privacy, and encrypted messaging. And that’s who they want at managing privacy at WhatsApp.”
Besides, Facebook will persist with or without privacy-focused employees. That makes the "if you can't beat them, join them" strategy more palatable. "Hiring a few people doesn't change culture, especially in an organization that has become as large and sprawling as Facebook," said O'Brien. "I take this as a sign that Facebook is at the very least interested in exploring what change might look like."
There's a hope, also, that White, Cardozo, and Greene will not just help bolster Facebook's privacy cred but also open up helpful conversations between their former advocacy worlds and Facebook's leadership.
And change is coming. After years of keeping WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram relatively separate, Zuckerberg has grand plans for uniting the messaging components of those platforms so that people can communicate across all three. This will be a big test for WhatsApp, and therefore Cardozo. WhatsApp has had full, default end-to-end encryption since 2016, and Cardozo will be tasked with helping to make sure that encryption isn't undermined by combining the services.
It will be very hard to know from the outside whether the gamble for Cardozo, White, and Greene to go inside Facebook pays off. "Once people go on the inside it's difficult for them to talk publicly," notes King.
After first agreeing to talk to WIRED for this story, Cardozo declined after Facebook's communications team got involved. Greene and White did not respond to requests for comment. WIRED has reached out to Facebook for comment and will update this story if we hear back. In her announcement on Twitter , Greene called Facebook’s privacy team “incredible.” In his announcement Cardozo mentioned of “enormous challenge” the job posed. That might be putting it mildly.
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