Why There’s No Such Thing As A Private Facebook Chat


If you think your messages to your Facebook friends are private, think again. The social network announced that it has plans to look at your personal conversations as a way to make more profits from targeted advertising.

Facebook has been a leader in data-mining, taking information from people’s profiles and studying their behavior to make money and improve the website. But its decision to delve into private content marks the next frontier for Big Data. Silicon Valley and big businesses alike have become increasingly reliant on data mining, which can predict election outcomes based on social media posts, or make a connection between what words people use and the weather.

In its quarterly investors conference call in late April, Facebook’s chief operations officer, Sheryl Sandberg, explained exactly why the company is going further to track your data: “Our goal is that every time you open News Feed, every time you look at Facebook, you see something, whether it’s from consumers or whether it’s from marketers, that really delights you, that you are genuinely happy to see.”

To do that, Facebook wants to take a look at your private messages. “Facebook historically has focused on friends and public content,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on the call. “Now, with Messenger and WhatsApp, we’re taking a couple of different approaches towards more private content as well.”

Your chats reveal more about you than you think

Private messaging has become an incredibly popular feature, which nearly every top social media app centers itself around. Snapchat, the picture-sharing app that automatically deletes pictures seconds after they’re sent, just added a one-on-one chat and video function similar to what Twitter and Google already have.


“People are making more intimate connections now than ever before just by chatting through a window on a screen,” Ramani Durvasula, PhD., a Los Angeles-based psychologist at California State University, Los Angeles told ThinkProgress.

Those private conversations are rife with details that may seem insignificant on the surface but provide valuable insight into a person: “What people share via a private chat and what they share in a status update are vastly different,” Durvasula said. That’s what makes personal conversations “the best place to get data because it’s uncensored.”

People are already generally uninhibited online, sharing everything from their emotional ups and downs, to live-tweeting childbirth. But what’s said one-on-one pulls back another layer, exposing what truly makes one tick — “The stressors people share, the intimacies, give insight to what people are most passionate about,” Durvasula said.

“Everything you say, every character typed is being watched.”

Private chats online also tell companies like Facebook how you use technology, what kinds of information you share on which platforms and with which audiences. “Some people use it much more for one-to-one communications than they would use the other parts of Facebook,” Augustin Chaintreau, assistant professor of computer science at Columbia University in New York, explains. For example, Facebook may be interested in seeing whether certain users prefer emailing or texting loved ones, and only use its Messenger app to keep up with more tangential relationships. Or the data could be used to tell whether someone was in distress or needed help, he added.


But there’s a risk in trying to piece together a profile of a person based on their online habits, Chaintreau said. “The risk is that there is a natural reason that people do different things in different places. You’re a different person, have different behaviors. The emotions will be different. Even if you’re very consistently presenting yourself [across the Web], you may or may not like a particular message presented on one platform or app versus the other because it doesn’t fit who you are [or what you’re doing in that space].”

All of those pieces of conversations — telling a friend you went to the doctor Tuesday, where you stayed on vacation, the fight you had with your significant other — add up and paint a fuller picture of users, leading to better products and ads recommending clinics, hotels and relationship counselors, Durvasula said: “Everything you say, every character typed is being watched. So if you’re typing a [private] message at 1 a.m., that means you could get targeted for an Ambien ad.”

In the past, Facebook tracked what users didn’t post in status updates, and was able to determine which types of users self-censored the most.

Those are the kinds of details that give companies an advantage, Pamela Rutledge, PhD., director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Newport Beach, Calif., told ThinkProgress. “There’s monetary value in conversation. What do new moms worry about, and how does that change over the lifespan? So [as a company] you’re really stepping into the shoes of your customer. And what better way to do that then look through private conversations,” Rutledge said.

“People don’t realize what they’re putting out there,” Durvasula said. Almost everyone uses the Internet on the daily basis with more than 65 percent having a photo publicly posted online, according to a Pew study. Another one in two Web users readily have their email, birth date or old job posted publicly. Those numbers jump significantly when you look at teens’ use: Almost all teens use their real name, post their interests, birth dates and post pictures of themselves, Pew found. Over 70 percent have their school name and where they live.

And when it comes to personal conversations, even more could be revealed. “What if [a conversation] does reveal something about your medical or mental history? This could keep you from getting insurance or even a job.”

When private chats aren’t actually private

It’s common for tech companies, especially as they go public, to look for ways to make money through advertising. Twitter, which entered the stock market in 2013, recently bought its longtime data partner Gnip with eyes for turning its user data into revenue. Since Zuckerberg took the company public in 2012, Facebook has been similarly ramping up its advertising efforts — running into privacy controversies along the way, including using users’ profile pictures without their permission to make the ads more relatable.


But the social network also has been strategically positioning itself to join the ranks of Google, which already reads your personal communications. In its privacy agreement, Google reserves the right to sift through users’ data as long as they’re logged in, including everything a person searches with, what videos they watch on YouTube, where users travel using Google Maps, and private chats and emails.

With widespread data collection and mining Google has run into legal trouble. The company has been dealing with several lawsuits regarding its email scanning, one of which accuses Google of reading children’s messages and tracking their Internet use through its education apps. Google is also waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether collecting data through private, unencrypted Wi-Fi networks for Google Maps is legal.

“If you want this convenient way to connect with 7 billion people, you have to give us your data.”

Earlier this month, Facebook divorced its messaging function into a standalone app. People used to send messages with their friends online within Facebook’s native app. The company has tweaked its chat function over the years, making it easier to navigate with features — like floating profile pictures to indicate pending messages on the home screen — that made new messages and conversations more prominent in the mobile app. But making Messenger its own app, which has a built-in camera for photo sharing and video messaging, helps Facebook better keep track of the data in those chats.

Facebook’s recent purchases — namely Instagram and WhatsApp — further exemplify the company’s commitment to personal messaging. Instagram, which Facebook bought just before it went public, added direct messaging to its app late last year, allowing users to privately trade photos, and adding to a wealth of data on every user. WhatsApp lets users send SMS messages practically for free to anyone who has the mobile app. The app isn’t very popular in the United States but has a half billion strong user base in Europe, India, Latin America and Africa, where Facebook is looking to expand. WhatsApp is expected to soon hit a billion users, making it a ripe source for digging into — not necessarily what people are saying — but what those millions of texts reveal about their habits and desires.

Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp for $19 billion shows not only how serious the company is about private chats, but how much they’re worth.

The tipping point in the privacy debate

The reality is that it has become nearly impossible to keep your personal data from Internet companies. Google, for example, already collects millions of pieces of user data that rivals only Facebook which houses a complete network of friends, coworkers and family and their musings through statuses, link shares and picture uploads.

“We’re entering a social experiment where so many companies know so much about us and we’re in the dark,” Chaintreau said. People feel a familiarity with companies like Facebook that they use every day. “It’s almost as if they’re your friend.” But without being more transparent about what they’re doing with consumers’ data, that could change.

It’s a tradeoff: “If you want this convenient way to connect with 7 billion people, you have to give us your data,” Durvasula said. And people will generally go along with it: “A lot of people will give up a little bit of their privacy for the convenience, which can sometimes be helpful like Amazon’s ‘People who bought this also bought that’ feature,” Rutledge said. So the debate around privacy won’t be whether or not companies should be collecting such personal information, but what data customers let them collect.

“Anyone who knows a lot about you can exert a certain amount of power.”

Regardless of whether users see it as a big deal, Facebook’s private snooping may just push the privacy debate to the tipping point. Some people may say, “I don’t care that Facebook knows I like Chiquita bananas and Mercedes Benzes,” Durvasula said, or respond with more alarm, as Rutledge pointed out: “‘Oh my gosh they’re listening to my conversations with my husband!’”

“Most private conversations are about what you see in public anyway, you just feel they’re more appropriate for a limited audience,” Rutledge went on. But the bottom line is that having personal information in cyberspace slowly erodes true privacy, in part because companies like Facebook turn around and make money off it, said Durvasula, who advocates for not using Facebook.

“The real [responsibility] is not to get all fired up and get your pitchforks out, but to draw a line and ask do I have a choice,” Rutledge said. “There’s a burden on the individual to get educated, but there’s also a burden on the companies,” Rutledge said. “We’re not all lawyers, we’re not all IT guys,” the public needs to demand companies explain their data and privacy rights in plain English: “What are these things that I might not understand that I might not want,” Rutledge said.

The next frontier in the data wars

When Edward Snowden leaked documents detailing the U.S. National Security Agency’s dragnet, internationally-run phone surveillance program in 2013, it incited a public outcry, with Americans calling on Congress and President Obama to change how the country collected intelligence. The same concern applies when companies gather bits of your Internet activity.

“Anyone who knows a lot about you can exert a certain amount of power,” Rutledge said. And the amount of information that companies collect is likely going to increase.

It’s possible, Chaintreau adds, for technology like Google Glass to become as ubiquitous as the Internet. That will create a host of new sensory-based data that companies, or even the government, could use to tap into what you see and feel.

“People need to understand the economics behind their data. If people know how much it was worth maybe they would act differently.”

Privacy online has only recently become a major concern for most people. As identity theft and large-scale breaches become more common, Web users have started taking additional steps to try to minimize their digital imprint: Nearly 90 percent of online users clear their browser’s cookies, which can be used to track online activity, or delete old status updates, according to a Pew survey. More than half of people have taken steps to avoid being detected online by certain people, organizations or the government.

But despite those efforts, the sheer convenience and desire to stay connected tends to outweigh the loss of privacy.

“Instead of being purposely disconnected [from technology], you have to be more aware,” Chaintreau said. “People need to understand the economics behind their data. If people know how much it was worth maybe they would act differently,” Chaintreau said. Projects like this already exist. DataCoup is one that allows people to sell their information from Facebook, Google, YouTube and other outlets to prospective companies.

“Consumers are winning free services, which are cool,” Chaintreau explained, “but they’re not that expensive to run, and the companies are making millions off the personal data they collect.”