Beware Facebook's Messenger Rooms Video Chat App

Soohee Cho/The Intercept

Duane Townsend

The Intercept - May 20, 2020

EARLIER THIS MONTH, Facebook debuted its group video chat offering, Messenger Rooms, to a world under widespread pandemic lockdown, one that’s in large part replaced face-to-face meetings with streamed conversations. The chief beneficiary of this shift, Zoom, has spent months as a punching bag for privacy advocates, so Facebook was quick to assure users that it had “built Rooms with privacy in mind” and that “we don’t watch or listen to your audio or video calls.”

But today, well over a week after the rollout and nearly a month after Facebook announced and offered the privacy assurances about Messenger Rooms, it’s impossible to determine exactly what information will be collected about you and your life if you decide to use the product. The company’s public documentation of Messenger Rooms, including a post focused on privacy, offers very few details, although the privacy post promises, narrowly, that “audio and video from Rooms won’t be used to inform ads.” Facebook’s communications department spent weeks researching my questions about Messenger Rooms privacy, only to come back with few answers, and offering instead only links to a spate of vague policies that predate the product.

Those policies, and the few specifics Facebook has given publicly about Messenger Rooms, leave unanswered important questions about how the company handles the metadata around video calls — who you talk to, when you talk to them, from where, etc. — including what metadata the company retains and with whom it shares it. Even Facebook’s upfront pledge not to “watch or listen” to conversations isn’t ironclad, privacy experts said.

The takeaway is that Facebook’s latest product, like all its previous products and those of its competitors, requires a leap of faith. For those wondering what ditching Zoom for Facebook entails in complete and precise terms, there is quite literally no definitive answer, but only another question: Well, do you trust Facebook?

A Window Into Your Intimate Relationships

The privacy of Messenger Rooms is particularly important given how Facebook has positioned it to the public. Zoom is a contortionist technology, a service that now simultaneously facilitates workplace meetings, happy hours, and unsatisfying teleromance. Facebook is marketing Messenger Rooms for a more intimate role in your life, dispensing with talk of the workplace and offering instead “a new way to spend time with friends and family through group video calls when you can’t be together in person.” In an effort to assure would-be Rooms users that the service can be trusted, an April 24 blog post by Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan outlines the kinds of data the company will collect if you use Rooms to host your next virtual board game night.

A few of them, at least. Finding a complete list of how Facebook will track your video chat sessions — and how this data could be used — is a fruitless experience, because if such a list exists, it isn’t shared with the public or the press. Rather, Facebook provides only what it provides for every other app and service in its stable: Hypothetical examples of data it could collect, but not an exhaustive accounting of what it does collect. The automated surveillance of Messenger Rooms sessions is alluded to, glancingly, but never fleshed out.

For the most crucial question — Will Facebook monitor my video chats the way it monitors the rest of my life? — we are provided only with this assurance from Egan’s post: “Regardless of whether you use Rooms through your Facebook account or join as a guest, we don’t watch or listen to your audio or video calls.”

But this pledge still leaves wide open the question of metadata collection, the sorts of more abstracted but still deeply intimate information about your conversations, like how often you talk to each of your contacts. Egan nods to metadata collection only once, acknowledging that Facebook may collect information “like the name of a room and who’s in it” and that it may share that information “with outside vendors that help us do things like reviewing and addressing issues reported by users.” As comforting as “we won’t actively spy on you” may be, the fact remains that “the name of the room and who’s in it” can be profoundly personal and as revealing as the contents of any conversation. ...
Read full report at The Intercept

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