Would you take privacy advice from Facebook?

Facebook wants to educate people on privacy, but going to Facebook for a privacy check-up is like asking David Cameron for advice on Brexit.

Are you due a privacy check up? If so, help is at hand. Facebook is launching ‘privacy cafés’ across the UK where users can get “help and advice” on how to change their privacy settings. And with a free drink from a “limited menu” to boot.

This is just the latest move from the world’s largest social network in response to mounting concerns over transparency. As Facebook’s vice-president of Northern Europe, Steve Hatch, explains: “It’s normal to worry about who can see the things you share on social media, that’s why we have made customising your privacy settings on Facebook quick and easy.

“At our pop-up cafés you can get help and advice on how to change your privacy settings – and all in the time it takes to make a cup of coffee.”

If it’s so quick and easy to customise privacy settings, it’s unclear why pop-up cafés to explain the process are needed across the UK. And users having the right privacy settings hasn’t stopped their data being used without their consent before; hence why Cambridge Analytica was able to harvest the personal date of 87 million Facebook users.

One thing that might need some explaining is Facebook’s new ‘clear history’ tool. It allows users to see which apps and businesses are sending collected data to Facebook, giving them the option to ‘disconnect’ the information if they so wish.

What Facebook seems to be doing is headline-grabbing to distract from the fact it’s not really doing much at all.

Yet despite claiming to ‘clear history’, which is meant to mimic the act of a user clearing their browser cache, Facebook’s new tool doesn’t actually delete anything from Facebook’s servers. It merely disconnects data from a user’s account so the data is anonymised.

Despite Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg promising the tool in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica revelations in a bid to save face, Facebook won’t be promoting it to users. It will be hidden amid a growing stream of privacy settings. Maybe those cafés aren’t such a bad idea after all.

Users cutting down on how much information they share with Facebook could have a pretty big impact on its ad business if enough people adopt it. Facebook has built its business on enabling brands to successfully target people based on their activity around the web.

And following its $5bn (£4bn) fine from the Federal Trade Commission it has to be seen to be doing something. But this all feels like smoke and mirrors.

Facebook at 15: An advertising titan that needs to grow up

In reality, while the media bangs on about the issue of data privacy, the general public aren’t paying much attention and brands aren’t taking any substantial action to stand up for their customers.

Facebook’s revenues are still rising fast. And its new feeds continue to be littered with information that people willingly give up, whether via a status update, an app they allowed to access their Facebook picture so they could see what they would like as an 80-year-old, or sharing the results of a quiz.

Away from the core Facebook app, Facebook Messenger asks for more permissions than most other apps, including: recording in-app purchases, browser bookmarks and web history; a log of the device’s system; access to contacts and calendars, and a record of your identity.

Yet more than 1.4 billion people have allowed this, and are using it not just to chat to friends but to engage with 40 million businesses and 300,000 bots. Only a few weeks ago it came to light that Facebook had paid outside contractors to transcribe some users’ voice messages within the app, supposedly so it could monitor the performance of its AI-driven transcription service. Most people didn’t even notice the news.

After Cambridge Analytica and with mounting concerns over its role in the proliferation of fake news, Facebook has to be seen to be doing something in the interest of its six million advertisers and 2 billion+ monthly active users.

But what the company seems to be doing is headline-grabbing to distract from the fact it’s not really doing much at all. As one former Facebook employee told BuzzFeed News: “It’s, ‘Hey, look at this shiny thing, please don’t pay attention to this mushroom cloud’.”

As for its new pop-up cafes: going to Facebook for a privacy check-up is a little like asking David Cameron for advice on Brexit. One pop-up to serve the whole of London won’t do much to get people changing their privacy settings. Meanwhile, the mushroom clouds continue to sail past outside.