Facebook wants to take your personal messages and use them as a way to target you with more advertising. Let’s try to stop them.
As you can imagine, the privacy implications of this will send some tin-foil hats spinning, and though Facebook will tell you that the messages won’t be read by people, isn’t the concept enough to make you think twice about using Facebook for instant messaging?
That probably goes for you too, WhatsApp and Instagram users.
In 2011 Facebook broke new ground in the advertising world when it started testing an advertising method that worked in real-time, scanning users’ status updates and serving up advertising content based on vanity, profanity and baby photos. Back then, Facebook said they weren’t going to use Chat data in the same way, but that’s changed apparently – so you’d better get used to it.
Facebook has gone as far as researching what users don’t share online to build up a better portfolio to offer potential advertisers, and your private chats offer an even clearer glimpse into your personal and spending habits. Just like every other privacy change, you’ve essentially already consented to it by simply using the service so there won’t be an opt-out button.
Many of us have at some point already shared too much online, so it’s worth asking whether we want to share our most private communication with a company that sells its users’ personal information to marketers and other people who generally want to sell you something.
Though the company will undoubtedly reassure you that the data won’t necessarily be seen by human beings (believable considering the network’s size) – isn’t the principle enough to want to do something about it? Would you be able to have a private telephone conversation with someone knowing software was scanning your call, noting topics and keywords so that advertisers could show you things you’re more likely to buy?
This doesn’t stop at just Facebook either, as the company has been on a bit of a spending spree recently so both WhatsApp and Instagram will presumably follow suit at some point.
Encrypt Your Chats
Of course, Facebook Chat is convenient, well-integrated with the general messaging system and always there. It’s convenient – but if you encrypt your messages, the platform is both convenient and private! Luckily there are two projects designed to redress the balance by encrypting your messages on each end, so Facebook can’t tell what’s being said.
Both are free and open source, but not without drawbacks. Both you and whoever you are talking to need to be using the same app for it to work, plus your Facebook chats won’t be searchable or viewable on the web anymore – just through the app of your choosing.
Cryptocat is an app designed to make private chat fun and accessible, which explains the jovial name and feline connection. The latest version of Cryptocat’s web apps is able to login, retrieve your Facebook contacts list, display it in a buddy list and initiate standard (unencrypted) chats with your contacts.
If both you and the person you are talking to are running an Off The Record (OTR) compliant chat client/Cryptocat then your chat will be encrypted. Cryptocat is currently available as a web app for Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Opera with OS X and iOS (both free) versions also available. The iPhone app doesn’t yet support Facebook (at the time of writing) but the feature is on its way.
Just like Cryptocat, SafeChat encrypts your Facebook messages and renders them useless to the social network for marketing purposes. And, just like Cryptocat, the app is available as a web app for Chrome and Firefox with an iOS (free) version available too. The Facebook chat feature is available in all versions, though the iPhone app does have a few caveats.
If you want to receive notifications (and why wouldn’t you) the app must be run in background mode to refresh every ten minutes in order to fetch new messages. Pictures, group chats and read receipts won’t work either.
What Else Can You Do?
Most people don’t care what you’re talking about, and it’s highly unlikely any human beings will be listening in on your chat, but with the many, many instant messaging platforms out there it seems foolish to stick to the one that rates privacy below profit, so you could always pick another.
After Facebook bought WhatsApp, everyone wanted a new messenger. We put together a list of privacy-conscious WhatsApp alternatives to add to our existing round-up of secure iOS instant messengers. You could also continue to use one of the apps above with Facebook Chat, but convince your frequent contacts that their privacy is worth a quick download, and show them this article.