Yes, You Should Stop Using Facebook Apps On Your iPhone

Bill Mount

One or more of these Facebook apps are almost certainly on your iPhone. And, despite Apple’s best efforts, this should give you serious concerns. Whether you change how you use them is up to you—but here’s what you really need to know. NurPhoto via Getty Images The clash of the […]

One or more of these Facebook apps are almost certainly on your iPhone. And, despite Apple’s best efforts, this should give you serious concerns. Whether you change how you use them is up to you—but here’s what you really need to know.

The clash of the tech titans continues. Tensions between Apple and Facebook have just escalated even further, with Mark Zuckerberg warning that “we see Apple as one of our biggest competitors,” that it is using “its dominant platform position to interfere with how our apps and other apps work… to preference their own.”

The specifics around privacy labels and tracking notifications are important—but there’s a wider philosophy at play here, a shift in tectonic plates that signals the biggest change in how we use our phones in a decade. The mobile data/ads/tracking industry has grown fat and lazy on our indifference and our ignorance.

All that now starts to change.

Facebook knows this—that’s what has promoted the strength of its response. “Apple may say that they’re doing this to help people,” Zuckerberg told analysts on his January earnings call, “but the moves clearly track their competitive interests.” Yes, but not because Apple wants to muscle in on the algorithmically targeted ads sector dominated by Facebook and Google, but because Apple sees erecting a privacy ring-fence around iPhone users as a competitive advantage.

Last year, Apple announced that it would bolster the already market-leading privacy built into iOS. And finally, we will now get the delayed removal of the unique device identifier on Apple devices, used by Facebook to measure and promote the success of its campaigns. This comes hot on the heels of the privacy labels that thrust WhatsApp among others into the headlines, as the scale of Facebook’s data collection was outed.

Privacy labels have been bad enough for Facebook—just ask WhatsApp, but there’s still an onus on users to dig for the information. Now, though, AppTrackingTransparency is on different level. Apple users will be asked by each installed app whether it’s okay to follow them around online. Facebook rightly assumes that most people will say no, and all those “allow Facebook to track your activity” requests will be a PR nightmare as everyone thinks about the business model underpinning “free to use” apps.

There is complexity underlying this debate—free-to-use services funded by access to our data, a level (or otherwise) playing field controlled by Apple, what each of those privacy labels actually means in the real world.

Facebook is now testing how it might explain this to users in a convincing enough way that those users will say okay, yes, feel free to track me. Erm, good luck with that. EFF has dismissed the company’s campaign to defend its tracking as “laughable,” and just “one more direct attack against our privacy.” Google is much more silent on Apple’s changes—it sits both sides of the fence, after all. Reports this week even suggest Android users may get their own (watered down) version of the anti-tracking tech.

Here’s the reality. For the (literally) billions of users of Facebook apps, there is a simple, underlying truth that has become inescapable. And it’s important that we don’t allow this debate and those many complexities to cloud that in our minds. On every level, however it’s judged, Facebook collects and processes too much of our data. There is no balance, there are no checks or balances, its business model is so entrenched that it can’t seem to rethink the basics despite the constant backlash.

We are in the realm of the frog and the scorpion.

This has become clear in recent weeks with WhatsApp’s mishandling of a privacy label and data-sharing backlash that has been very well documented. But let’s return to that simple truth. Apple has, at long last, shone a bright and awkward light on the permissions abuse that has been allowed to evolve on our smartphones. Our behaviors, contact details, social graphs, locations, device details, shopping habits, browsing histories… all fair game to be harvested and sold by brokers or used by tech giants to sell targeted ads that will make us buy.

Let’s be very clear. Facebook has lashed out because Apple now insists that users cannot be tracked in secret, that their permission needs to be sought. This isn’t Apple’s problem, it isn’t your problem, it’s Facebook’s problem. And if you want to understand how subversive and powerful this is, think about the times someone has suggested their phone is eavesdropping on conversations, based on ads suddenly appearing in their feeds. This is how that’s done. Seemingly innocuous and unrelated activities, a click or a search someplace else, all monitored by the world’s most lucrative algorithm.

Facebook is a data machine. And that extends well beyond app permissions (privacy labels) and cross-site identifiers (app tracking). We have seen the recent admission from Facebook that it “collects and processes” the location data embedded in images you post on its site or apps, even if you disable location tracking on your phone. And we now know that Facebook has stopped downloading links and files sent between users on Messenger and Instagram in Europe—because it contravenes European privacy regulations. The rest of the world, though, is still fair game.

The arguments back and forth are a distraction. This is your data. You have the right to ask why it’s being collected, how it’s being processed, where it’s being accessed. And while there is a fair argument that free-to-use services should monetize some of our data to fund their platforms, the growth, values and profitability of Facebook and Google and others suggest that the balance implicit in any such arrangement has gotten way out of kilter.

Facebook has four hyperscale apps that are the front-end for its smartphone data gathering machine: Instagram, Messenger, WhatsApp and Facebook itself. Many of you will have all four, very few of you will have none at all. Of the four, only WhatsApp mandates the phone app to work, but with the exception of the core Facebook app itself—which can easily be replaced with browser access, the others are designed around the smartphone experience.

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All of which makes those Apple privacy labels so interesting, as we return to that basic, underlying truth. And it’s not about Facebook’s data gathering in isolation, it’s about how it compares to its competition. Let’s put the core app aside—there’s nothing else quite like Facebook itself, but Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger all have peers. And in every case, Facebook’s apps are way out of step with their main competitors.

Why might that be? Those other apps include the likes of TikTok which have had their own privacy showdowns. Perhaps none of the others took the view that they would get away with harvesting what seems like every possible data field on a device. 

This is even more starkly illustrated with messengers, and that’s why there was such a backlash when the privacy labels were published for WhatsApp and Messenger.

Image sharing apps, by their nature, are somewhat public. Instagram is fairly open that it sells data and access to fund its free platform. But private messaging is not, by its nature, public. And where those messengers—such as WhatsApp—go to market on their security and privacy creds, the idea that metadata is being farmed for profit sits uneasily with their userbase.

Apple is clamping down on this data gathering machine—all these apps will soon need to ask whether you’ll permit their tracking functionality. Almost all of you will likely and rightly say no. But that won’t change the data gathering and analysis that Facebook undertakes within its own ecosystem, inferring likes and dislikes and propensities to buy or act, based on the thousands of things it watches us say and do. Do not assume that new anti-tracking measures stem Facebook’s core data harvesting machine, they are not the same thing.

Facebook will continue to collect and process enough data to target each of us with ads specifically designed to make us respond. The tracking change will hit a part of its business model and it will make it harder to demonstrate the efficacy of ads.

Facebook’s real problem, though, is that this is not the end of the line for those changes. We are seeing a pro-privacy trend, and Facebook may well see its data harvesting business model becoming more difficult to execute without seeking and potentially paying for user permission. And there’s also the worry for Facebook that its vast audience is being trained to ask questions.

All that said, Apple can’t act alone. Unless and until those (literally) billions of users push back, rejecting the usability of an app designed to harvest our data unless and until that data collection is brought into line with broader norms, where’s the impetus for change? 

In the years since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, we have been relatively indifferent to this status quo… Just look at the bottom-line numbers and growth charts. Facebook continues to do what Facebook has always done. And so, yes, you should stop using Facebook apps on your iPhone; but the reality is that you probably won’t.

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