In a leaked document obtained by Motherboard, Facebook engineers made it clear that the data collected from its billions of users tends to get lost within the machine. That is, Facebook has no freaking clue where your data goes and how a good portion of it is disseminated.
The document was produced last year by engineers tasked with keeping the ad business running, the engine of the Facebook machine. The purpose of the document was a warning to management.
Because of the troubles organizing and storing data, it would be difficult to comply with regulatory edicts from governments around the world. From the document:
“We do not have an adequate level of control and explainability over how our systems use data, and thus we can’t confidently make controlled policy changes or external commitments such as ‘we will not use X data for Y purpose.’ And yet, this is exactly what regulators expect us to do, increasing our risk of mistakes and misrepresentation.”
Many regulations against Facebook (think about the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)) demand that personal data be used only for specific purposes and not spread around like Marmite on toast.
This makes not being able to track and organize data a problem for Facebook sooner than later. Facebook has done this before and this memo would imply those types of instances were not entirely intentional.
Facebook can’t control the data
Data engineers around the world would likely agree that it can be tenuous to manage data sets this large. Think of every data point being collected by Facebook. Then, multiply that number by its user base.
It’s billions upon billions of points of data, all having to be stored and accessed in order to serve ads. But that doesn’t mean it is impossible and Facebook engineers aren’t necessarily implying that. Rather, they are bringing to light continuing struggles with managing that data set as it continues to grow.
“Considering this document does not describe our extensive processes and controls to comply with privacy regulations, it’s simply inaccurate to conclude that it demonstrates non-compliance. New privacy regulations across the globe introduce different requirements and this document reflects the technical solutions we are building to scale the current measures we have in place to manage data and meet our obligations,” a Facebook spokesperson told Motherboard.
Between this statement and the release from the engineers, Facebook could easily claim that while its data collection processes are justified, it simply has too much data to adequately control. Which is ridiculous.
It means that Facebook, up to this point, has lacked the planning, staffing and organization to wrangle all that data. It doesn’t mean that Facebook doesn’t intend on complying with regulations, it means that it can’t. Which, in the eyes of many critics, is the same damn thing.
And it kind of is. Facebook and its infinite money has had years to build its ad revenue machine correctly. It has had years to build processes and databases to manage data.
Whether it has or not, whether any of this is actually accurate is still debatable. Facebook has proven in the past that while its motives are clear (money), its processes aren’t.
Facebook has toyed with ways to collect less data
The company is apparently planning to launch something called “Basic Ads” at some point, though the document pointed out the deadline for that was back in 2020. Basic Ads would enable users to opt out of almost all third and first party data advertising.
We have to always remember, if the product is free, then you are the product. Facebook has become the data repository for a good chunk of humanity. Some of you have your whole lives sitting on a Facebook server somewhere, some of us just have memes taking up space.
Yet, as damning as this document seems, it seems just as much expected. People are going to use Facebook regardless of data collection. It’s clear that many don’t care. So, why would they give a shit how it is stored?