The idea of a Facebook phone has been kicking around for years.
But when Facebook finally unveiled one Thursday, it wasn’t a piece of hardware like everyone was expecting. Instead, Mark Zuckerberg debuted Facebook Home, a software layer that will be built on top of Google’s Android operating system. The new product will be deeply integrated with Android, meaning that users’ typical home screens and lock screens will be replaced by an interface dominated by Facebook.
“It feels incredibly native,” wrote The Verge’s David Pierce in a hands-on review. “Everything is full-screen and incredibly visual, really looking nothing like Android.”
That should be setting off alarm bells at Google HQ.
Facebook Home wouldn’t be possible without Android, which Google makes available to developers for free. While it's true that the Facebook experience could bolster Android's sales in the short run, making it an attractive alternative to Apple's iPhone, industry watchers quickly pointed out that a Facebook takeover of the Android experience could not only rob Google of revenue and its brand recognition in the mobile space, but open up a whole new set of threats to user privacy. Here's Giga Om's Om Malik:
So if your phone doesn’t move from a single location between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. for say a week or so, Facebook can quickly deduce the location of your home. Facebook will be able to pinpoint on a map where your home is, whether you share your personal address with the site or not.… The data from the accelerometer inside your phone could tell it if you are walking, running or driving. As Zuckerberg said — unlike the iPhone and iOS, Android allows Facebook to do whatever it wants on the platform, and that means accessing the hardware as well.
Facebook is notorious for collecting user data without asking first, so in that sense, there’s good reason to worry. But it’s no more reason for concern than there already was: other app developers are free to take advantage of Android’s openness, just like Facebook has. Indeed, Google itself — no great defender of user privacy — could do the same. If it wasn’t Facebook to gather all this data, it would’ve been somebody else.
In some ways, the fact that it’s Facebook (and not another developer) that may dig into your mobile behavior could be a good thing in that users are already conscious about Facebook’s data-hungry habits. But that may not be of much comfort.