A brief history of Facebook’s ever-changing privacy settings

Matthew Keys
7 min readMar 21, 2018

Facebook users have always been the product sold, not the customers served. For years, millions of Facebook users who routinely log on to the one billion-plus active accounts have traded their memories and experiences in exchange for a free platform to stay connected and get information.

Users felt that exchange was negligible and fair if it meant they might see the occasional advertisement for something they were interested. Then, Facebook went too far: if recent media reports are to be believed, Facebook allowed a major data mining operation to harvest user information of tens of millions of accounts as part of a sociopsycho propaganda campaign that almost certainly contributed to the eventual outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

There is no reason not to assume that Facebook’s business relationship with Cambridge Analytica was the first-ever of its kind for the social network, and plenty of reasons to believe it wasn’t. A former data engineer from Cambridge University who passed along a data set of Facebook users to Cambridge Analytica recently told the BBC Radio he was assured by both companies the data harvesting practice that has drawn so much recent criticism was a “routine” practice done by “tens of thousands of apps.”

What makes the Cambridge Analytica situation so problematic isn’t that the company harvested data from users who opted to take “personality quizzes” on the social platform — Facebook users regularly grant third-party services access to their profiles in exchange for certain benefits — but that Cambridge Analytica was also able to extract data from those connected to the users who took the quizzes. Those affiliated users didn’t grant Cambridge Analytica permission to review their data and likely didn’t know their data had been collected until news reports detailing the company’s activities began appearing last week.

Facebook’s response to the scandal has ebbed between tone deaf and radio silence. The company isn’t use to a scandal of this magnitude — privacy issues have bubbled up before, but the company always managed to put a band aid on those complaints by offering retooled privacy settings (that, in reality, made Facebook’s privacy options more complicated) or reassuring users that Facebook could be trusted with their data and their security (while at the same time offering terms of use that require Facebook users enable cookies to use the site and allow Facebook blanket rights to personal media uploaded to the website).

In fact, every year — like clockwork — Facebook has responded to criticisms of lackluster security and data exposure by rolling out “improvements” to its privacy offerings. More often than not, Facebook heralds the changes as enabling users to take better control of their data; in reality, the changes led to confusion and frustration:

Users who became invested in Facebook as a lifeline may have complained about all of those changes, but almost all of them acquiesced. Facebook always came out on top.

But now, things are different. Here, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica are being accused of misappropriating data that most users never knew was fair game. It was one thing for the companies to pass along data from those who opted in — a condition of taking personality quizzes offered by Cambridge Analytica. But it is a very different, and indeed more sinister, thing for the companies to harvest data from users who were merely connected to the first set. Those users didn’t knowingly pass along their information. They didn’t opt in.

Facebook is facing a crisis of trust. Any privacy terms that allowed Facebook and Cambridge Analytica to do what they did must be re-examined without consideration to either company’s profit motive. Facebook has had no problem executing changes in privacy features in the past, and it should have no problem doing so now.

The author used his phone to conduct research for — and ultimately write and publish — this post. Your patience with any linking or style errors (including mistakes in spelling or grammar) is appreciated. Contact the author here to report any such problems. Photo courtesy QuoteCatalog.com, reused here under terms of permission.