Australia – Facebook is trialling a location data-driven feature which it believes will help authorities combat bush fires in Australia, as well as tackling other disasters around the world, and it hopes to have the feature ready to roll out before summer.
Speaking to The Australian Financial Review while in the country for the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner’s Data Privacy Asia Pacific conference, Facebook deputy chief privacy officer Rob Sherman said the social network had been investing in ways to use data that benefited the public, such as disaster maps.
“The first 48 hours is the most critical time, but it is also the time when disaster recovery organisations lack the information on what the conditions are. They might know that an earthquake has a hit a city, but not what areas are hit hardest,” he said.
“[With Facebook’s location data] you can see on day one of a disaster that people are leaving certain areas. Then three days later you can see which areas people are returning too, indicating that recovery has begun. That lets disaster organisations understand where to deploy resources.”
Mr Sherman said tackling bush fires was a perfect use for disaster maps because when they occur there are few resources on the ground at the start. He said the map would increase the ability to track where people have evacuated, and where groups of people had stayed behind.
Facebook has already conducted trials with not-for-profit partners and it is in discussions with Australian organisations about its use. It hopes to develop an application programming interface (API) that will be accessible to law enforcement in real time, so that the feature is available as soon as a disaster strikes.
The social networking giant said it has developed the tool while maintaining the privacy of its users by applying a smoothing algorithm that captures patterns in the data.
Mr Sherman left his job as a lawyer to join Facebook about five years ago, and said privacy had become increasingly embedded in all of its new products.
“We have a privacy by design approach. The idea is to have discussions about privacy early on in the product development process, often before a line of code is written,” he said.
“It’s a process that involves a lot of perspectives around the company. It involves not just legal and compliance, but product design, engineering and security.”
Facebook has been plagued for years by complaints that it is fast and loose with its users’ privacy, and has reacted in recent times by giving users more real-time prompts about the privacy of their posts and comments. Users are now frequently asked if they want to change their settings back if they swap from “friends only” to “public” for a post or vice versa.
Mr Sherman said this was recognition that people wanted more control over their privacy.
“Privacy is very individual. Our challenge is to make sure people can have the experience they’re looking for. It’s important for us to make people comfortable with their information and to empower them to be in control of it,” he said.
“It’s not good for us if people are surprised by who sees their posts.”
Despite the investments Facebook is making in privacy, it still battles a perception problem.
In 2016 a survey by The Huffington Post and YouGov of 1000 US adults found 28 per cent of respondents did not trust Facebook at all with their personal data, 34 per cent said “not very much” and 32 per cent said “somewhat”, while only 3 per cent or respondents said they trusted the social media company “a lot”.
These findings were supported last year by brand and marketing consultancy Prophet’s survey of 45,000 consumers in multiple countries to formulate its brand relevance index, which ranked Facebook at 200th. Other tech giants only did marginally better, with Google coming in at 130.
To build trust, Facebook has endeavoured to be more transparent in the way it uses and shares data, as well as giving users privacy prompts.
Each year it publishes a report on government requests received by each country for information.
In the six months to December 31 last year, Facebook received 657 requests from the Australian government, involving 761 Facebook accounts. Of these requests, 63.9 per cent were granted.
Mr Sherman said if a government agency requested permission to access a user’s account, it must have a court order. The social network also has a team of people that scrutinise and dispute the requests.
“We have a document called law enforcement guidelines defining the specific standards that apply when we’re asked to give information,” he said. “We also let the people know so they have the chance to dispute the request.”