PARIS - This time, it was definitely not a bug. Facebook has admitted to spying on all private conversations on its network, looking for Internet links being exchanged and for possible "criminal activities."
The admission opens the network up to many questions concerning privacy and legal rights.
The Next Web, a popular technology site, found that for every link exchanged on Facebook through private messages or chat, the link’s "Like" counter increases. Some clever Facebook users are doing this on the sly to bolster their statistics. Questioned by The Next Web, Facebook confirmed the story and mentioned a "bug" that it supposedly had corrected. Facebook’s developers' page confirms that the "Like" counters also count "the number of inbox messages containing this URL as an attachment."
However, “the bug doesn’t relate to the actual private-message peeping,” the security company Sophos said on its blog.
Looking for "criminals"
This is not the first time Facebook has admitted to monitoring private conversations. In mid-July, the social network revealed that it had used software allowing it to filter some private messages, especially to track pedophiles. "This specific tool targets the rare cases of adults who try to use websites to attract children," a Facebook spokesman told Le Nouvel Observateur. "These cases implicating sexual predators are very rare, but we take a vigorous and aggressive approach to keeping Facebook users safe."
However, Facebook’s "scanning" of conversations does not target pedophilia only, but "all criminal activity" as well. Facebook reserves the right to "share information" with the authorities "to prevent fraud or other illegal activity."
As well as automatically monitoring private conversations to look for illegal activity, Facebook goes so far as to analyze the links exchanged, in the interests of keeping its "Like" counters up to date. A spokesman for Facebook tried to reassure The Next Web. "Absolutely no private information has been exposed."
"Facebook makes money with people's private lives."
Even if this were true, the practice raises questions concerning privacy and legal rights. Indeed, with regard to French law, Facebook seems to violate article L241-1 of the Internal Security code, which says: "The confidentiality of correspondence by electronic communication is guaranteed by the law. It may not be deprived of this confidentiality, except by public authorities, and only in the case of a public interest necessity as stipulated by the law, and within legal limits."
"The interception of a private message, even by a robot, could be enough to qualify as a violation of the confidentiality of correspondence," says Sabine Lipovetsky, a lawyer specializing in new technologies. "Access to private emails can be justified only if the authorities have requested or authorized it." Moreover, article 226-1 of the French Penal Code punishes infringement of privacy, defined as "the capturing, registering or transmitting, without the consent of their author, and words spoken in private or confidentially."
"This scanning of private messages is not at all surprising," says Jérémie Zimmermann, spokesman for La Quadrature du Net, a French organization that "defends freedom online." "Facebook bases its economic model on the monetization of personal information and its users’ conversations. There is no reason to trust the network to protect private correspondence. Facebook makes its money from web users' private lives. There is only one antidote: close your account and learn to use data-encryption tools."
Jean-Marc Manach, a journalist and author of “La vie privée, un problème de vieux cons?” Privacy: A Problem for Old Farts?, has a very different take. On his blog, he writes, "There is no "private life" on Facebook. On a social network, you live a "social life," or even a "public life." You just have to remember that when you are putting things out there for all to see, you need to pay attention, and be able to deal with the consequences."