Facebook, Passport, and the Human Condition

Facebook is under heavy fire for privacy “violations”, although they never did anything they didn’t explicitly tell users they were going to do. Also, no privacy laws apply to what they did wrong. Also, if the product is free, you are the product. Blah blah. Fact is, in a capitalist society, companies are going to do whatever they can within the constraints of the law to make a buck. If they make enough customers angry, they will eventually lose money, and that is the incentive to stay on the straight and narrow.

Anyway, in case you hadn’t heard, there are a lot of things going on here that has raised the ire of Facebook’s customer base. For years, I have demoed using the Open Graph API to download either all of the public users on Facebook, or friends of friends private information. Of course, as we all know, Cambridge Analytica used that same API to write a slick little plugin to gather a boatload of information and sell it to political candidates, which influenced elections, and they are kinda important around here, so people got mad. Technically, they did nothing that hasn’t been done a hundred times (hell, I have written software that does it) but this time people got mad. So be it.

Then there is the fake news, and the tracking, and watching where you go on the web even if you don’t have a Facebook account, and and and you get the idea. Folks got mad. Facebook did the whole mea culpa thing, as one does, and their customer count still goes up. As the time of this writing, they are still the most used application on the planet. Roger that.

Let’s get in the wayback machine. No, not Brewster Kahle’s WayBack Machine, just an imaginary one. In 2002, I was at TechEd signing the newly minted Professional Visual Basic.NET book, and trying to keep up with the Wrox contingent (news flash: Brits can drink.) In the evenings, I was working on an article about the second incarnation of Microsoft Passport. The original version was a try at what is now Active Directory Federated Services, but this version was a wholistic internet identity. It would track your calendar, your credit cards, your contact list, your email, everything, and help you out. If you bought plane tickets, it would have your Visa at the ready, and automatically add flight to your calendar. If your kids emailed to tell you they needed cupcakes for the bake sale, BANG, on the shopping list.

But … there was a problem. The user base went shitfuck. Some of the comments I remember were “I’ll sooner throw my computer in the river than give Microsoft access to my calendar and credit cards” and “Are you saying they will look at our email and change our data without asking first” and “The day will never come that I will let Microsoft log me into my bank”.

Yeah.

Anyway, if you of a certain age, and I told you the names of the people what wrote those things, you would instantly recognize them, I promise you. Me, I thought Passport was pretty neat. Not many other people thought it was neat. Court cases were filed. People quit Microsoft jobs (really!) over this. It was a disaster.

So here we are today. Facebook is under fire for using the data that people gave them freely to buy Mark more fast cars and hot women and blow, and people are mad. Meanwhile, they are logging into American Airlines, using their stored credentials, and their saved credit card info, and the email from American automatically adds the flight to their Google calendar.

Suffice it to say, in 15 years we’ll be having this same, exact conversation about some other technology, maybe facial recognition and brain scanning or something. I dunno. William Gibson probably does. Either way, Facebook has breached the front. In not too long, the user base will have gotten used to it, and whatever is after Facebook will sell our data with impunity.