Facebook Is Snapping Up Top Critics of its Privacy Practices

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Facebook Is Snapping Up Top Critics of its Privacy Practices

Facebook has a playbook for handling some of the most prominent critics of its privacy practices: It hires them.

Kevin Bankston, an Internet rights advocate at New America's Open Technology Institute, announced Tuesday he will join Facebook as its new director of privacy policy. Facebook hired three other prominent consumer privacy advocates for policy roles in recent months from organisations including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Access Now, as policymakers around the globe accuse companies of improperly sharing data or exposing sensitive information.

"I think that [Facebook is] working with a significant trust deficit as a company," said Alex Howard, a government transparency advocate who previously served as deputy director of the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation. "One way to address that is to acquire people who come with trust in their reputations, in their integrity, in their careers."

Facebook's new hires may be jumping at a chance to try to shake up a technology company that has suffered repeated privacy scandals from the inside. And the hiring blitz suggests the company recognises it needs more manpower dedicated to privacy as it grapples with tougher data laws in the European Union and soon California.

"They see a company that is gravely in need of change, and I think they are attracted to the idea of being on the ground floor and affecting that change," said Jen King, director of consumer privacy at the Stanford University Center for Internet and Society.

But some experts are sceptical that a handful of new hires will be able to have a major impact within a top-down company that is repeatedly under scrutiny for its mishandling of consumers' data. After all, they will be joining as Facebook and the Federal Trade Commission are negotiating a settlement following the agency's probe into the company's privacy lapses surrounding Cambridge Analytica, which could require Facebook to pay a multi-billion dollar fine and change some of its business practices.

Former Federal Trade Commission chief technologist Ashkan Soltani told me in an interview that the hires could signal that Facebook is getting serious about its commitment to reorient its business toward privacy and encryption. But, he said, "I'd be curious to see how much they can get done given what we know about that top-down structure of the company."

Soltani said he's also questioning the company's decision to announce Bankston's hire just a day after naming Jennifer Newstead its new general counsel. Newstead is known for her work in shaping the Patriot Act, which granted the US government broader surveillance capabilities in the aftermath of 9/11. Bankston, on the other hand, is a prominent advocate for greater transparency about government surveillance. He was the lead counsel in the Electronic Frontier Foundation's lawsuits against the National Security Agency and AT&T, challenging the legality of a wiretapping program first revealed in 2005.

Howard noted that Bankston is not in the C-Suite, so it's unclear how much decision-making power he will have within the large company. He also said "a cynical person might say they're taking away some of the most prominent advocates" from the national privacy debate - pointing out that Bankston and the other recent hires will no longer be able to speak freely from their positions outside the company.

Bankston declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a blog post announcing his hire, Bankston acknowledged he had a history of criticising the company. Despite its scandals in recent years, he still thinks the company has the opportunity to change the world for the better.

"My answer is simply this: I am not going to Facebook despite the fact that I have been a critic," Bankston said. "I am going because I have been."

Rob Sherman, Facebook's deputy chief privacy officer, said the company is "excited" for Bankston to join in a statement. "We think it's important to bring in people with new perspectives, including people who can look at our products, policies and processes with a critical eye," he said.

Bankston follows Facebook's hires of his former OTI colleague Robyn Greene, former EFF staff attorney Nate Cardozo and former Access Now senior legislative manager Nathan White.

Howard said he'll be watching to see whether Facebook will come to the table to work with policymakers on privacy changes or whether they try to fight them.

"My standard caution here is that actions always mean more than hires and statements," Howard said.

© The Washington Post 2019

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