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Inside Facebook's brilliant plan to hog your data

Mike Elgan | May 5, 2014
Facebook's Anonymous Login is designed to create scarcity in the user data market, which increases the value of that data, and forces more small companies to get that data through Facebook's ad network, rather than from the users directly.

Personal data is the new currency.

Companies want to get information about people — their location, age, relationships, interests, preferences and much more — because when they have that information they can offer more powerful, more monetizable apps and services and can make money with high-priced personalized ads.

But people want to prevent companies from getting their personal information for fear of being exploited, surveilled, abused and sold out.

It's in the context of this tension that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg this week announced a new offering called Anonymous Login. It's one of the most ingenious ideas Facebook has ever had.

Here's how it's supposed to work: If you provide your personal data to Facebook, you can then install and use apps that support Anonymous Login without giving your personal data to the app maker, at least initially.

In other words, a mobile app that supports Facebook Anonymous Login would allow logged-in Facebook users to interact with the app as if they had supplied their personal information, even if they hadn't actually done so.

Facebook says the feature provides "anonymity." But that's not accurate, because you do have to tell Facebook who you are. And it's not "pseudonymity," either, because you're not using a surrogate identity.

Facebook is walking a very fine line between the need to attract users (with a promise that they won't have to share their data) and the need to attract app developers (with promises of a greater number of users who will hand over some personal data eventually).

When he announced Facebook Anonymous Login, Zuckerberg seemed to imply that people wouldn't use apps indefinitely without ever divulging their personal details. He implied that once you've decided to trust or use an app, you'll be expected to agree to have personal information collected by the app maker. "Even if you don't want an app to know who you are yet," Zuckerberg said — note the word yet — "you still want a streamlined process for signing in." It's a way to "try apps without fear," he said — note the word try.

But I wonder.

Facebook promises app developers a process for converting "anonymous" users into data-divulging users. But I haven't seen any mechanism or contract or agreement or policy in any of this that might trigger the need for people to hand over personal information to app makers after some specific period of time.

My guess is that it will be up to the app makers to come up with incentives that will entice users to cough up their data. The implication that people would eventually hand over their data is probably just Facebook's attempt spin the service in a way that's friendliest to app developers as it tries to win them over to its platform.


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