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Facebook's mysterious new 'home'

Mark Zuckerberg says his company is not building a phone or an operating system, rather an Android product that contains a 'family' of apps.

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Facebook Home for Android phones has been dubbed by technologists as the death of privacy and the start of a new wave of invasive tracking and advertising.

But given Facebook (and others) already tracks people around the web and even buys data about their offline purchases, has the uproar come too late?

Home — which will be available as a download from Google's Play Store — is viewed as a Facebook takeover of Android and a significant threat to Google, as it puts Facebook's updates, contacts, messaging service, photos and soon, more invasive advertising, directly on to your phone's lock screen and home screen.

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer of Facebook, speaks during an event in Menlo Park, California.

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer of Facebook, speaks during an event in Menlo Park, California. Photo: Bloomberg

As The Verge wrote: “Facebook just put the entirety of the core Android experience inside a blue-tinted, ad-sponsored wrapper, and then hid the wrapper as an app inside Google's own store.”

Almost as soon as Home was announced some users worried that their calls, text messages, location and data from other apps would all be hoovered up. A lot of this data — including location, contacts and calls — Facebook already has access to if you use its existing Android app, while Facebook Messenger asks for permission to read your SMS and MMS.

Prominent tech blogger Om Malik wrote that Home “erodes any idea of privacy”. “If you install this, then it is very likely that Facebook is going to be able to track your every move, and every little action,” said Mailk.

A Facebook employee holds a phone that is running the new "Home" program during an event at Facebook headquarters.

A Facebook employee holds a phone that is running the new "Home" program during an event at Facebook headquarters. Photo: AFP

Ovum telecommunications analyst Jan Dawson said more tracking and ads was “the biggest obstacle to success” for Home. “Users don't want more advertising or tracking, and Facebook wants to do more of both.”

Facebook pointed out in a blog post that no one is forced to use Home and the data it collects about your activities and location is similar to that currently collected through the use of the Facebook app or website.

Australian Privacy Foundation board member Mark Walkom told Fairfax that this is exactly what people should be worried about. He said Home “sinisterly” blurred the lines between single-purpose apps likes maps and contacts and lumped them into one big data feed.

Facebook's new Android app in "Chat Head Thread" mode.

Facebook's new Android app in "Chat Head Thread" mode.

“This opens the possibility up for further gross erosions of privacy on unsuspecting users, all in the name of profits, under the guise of social connectivity,” he said.

Home effectively sits between you and your other apps, and is deeply integrated into Android.

According to Malik, in addition to knowing where you live Facebook could also “start to correlate all of your relationships, all of the places you shop, all of the restaurants you dine in and other such data”.

Facebook's new Android app in "Chat Head Preview" mode.

Facebook's new Android app in "Chat Head Preview" mode.

Facebook says it maintains a list of apps that you have in the app launcher as well as information about your app notifications but identifying information is removed after 90 days.

“Facebook could see that you launched a map application using the app launcher, but Facebook would not receive information about what directions you searched for or any other activity within the app itself,” Facebook said.

But IBRS analyst Guy Cranswick said Facebook's policy was always subject to change.

And just like many websites have Facebook features built-in, so do many apps, meaning Facebook has access to more data about your movements than you might think.

Cranswick points out that tracking users is core to what companies like Facebook and Google do and “consequently it's just not realistic to expect high walls around personal data because the system is driven by all that data”.

He said many people saw their privacy as a fair trade-off for Facebook's functionality. “Privacy is not a concern when their social lives are simulations of celebrity,” he said.

Facebook has a history of slowly pushing the boundaries on privacy, sometimes backpedalling when there's an uproar but often not.

A Facebook spokesman told Fairfax that the data it collects helps to optimise the user experience and was “for internal use only and not available to advertisers”. However, while it may not release the data to advertisers it certainly allows them to target their ads based on increasingly granular elements of that data.

In addition to the growth in tracking and advertising, Facebook has also begun charging for certain parts of its service, including fees to message people who are not on your friends list and fees to get your posts seen by more than just a small fraction of your total friends/fans.

In an interview with Wired, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said he wanted to “push back” against the idea that there has been a “wholesale shift” within the company towards making money or “monetisation”.

“We're making an even bigger investment in consumer products than we are on monetisation,” he said.

Meanwhile, Microsoft head of corporate communications Frank Shaw has accused Facebook of ripping off Windows Phone with its new focus on “people, not apps” with Home.

“The content of the [Home] presentation was remarkably similar to the launch event we did for Windows Phone two years ago,” he wrote on the company's official blog.