Don’t Be Fooled: Anonymity Is Not A Feature Of Facebook’s New ‘Rooms’ App

On Thursday, Facebook Creative Labs unveiled the new mobile app ‘Rooms‘ for public download in the US & UK. ‘Rooms,’ with the tagline “Create Something Together,” is the company’s newest in a growing line of social apps that operate outside of the flagship “Facebook” platform.  In browsing news articles covering the release, I was astonished that it is being branded as a tool for “anonymity.” An alarming number of websites are heralding the new iOS-only app as an opportunity to “go anonymous.” For a more in-depth overview of how the service works, check out this article over at The Verge.

The official Rooms blog features some very interesting insight as to why the app was created, mostly as a homage to the early days of the Internet where users, according to the Rooms developers, were more likely to interact with people they didn’t know simply because users had common interests. Rooms states on one blog post:

One of the things our team loves most about the internet is its potential to let us be whoever we want to be. […] This can be liberating, but only if we have places that let us break away from the constraints of our everyday selves. We want the rooms you create to be freeing in this way. […] – you can celebrate the sides of yourself that you don’t always show to your friends.
That’s why in Rooms you can be “Wonder Woman” – or whatever name makes you feel most comfortable and proud. You can even create different identities for different contexts. In my room for technology industry discussions I am “Josh” but in another about backpacking travel I am “jm90403” – a homage to my hometown zip code. Sometimes I want to go with my real name and sometimes I prefer a nickname. It depends.

This immediately got me thinking. How can a service run by Facebook, which survives off user data, actually provide a platform in which users can be anyone with the simple changing of their username?  Is Facebook really not keeping track of user habits and interests based on the rooms they choose to join?

Once the app is downloaded, users are required to agree to the Privacy Policy and Terms and Conditions of using Rooms.  I knew immediately that this is where I would find the answers to my questions and suspicions.

Reading through the policy, it seems fairly standard: 1) Provide an email address here, 2) username(s) there, and 3) publicly post everywhere. Seems simple. A user’s email address is never visible to the public – just their username and the information they post to a room. “Rooms will not share your real identity with other Rooms users.” Great!

WAIT! Rooms will not share my information with “other Rooms users.” That’s nice, but what about third parties that don’t fall within the classification of “other Rooms users.” That doesn’t include sharing my Rooms identities (assuming I create the encouraged multiple usernames for each room I join) to Facebook, right? Or, Advertisers? Wrong. The language of this policy is broad enough that Rooms has every right to share this information, which is more than likely the same email address, IP address, and countless other identifiers that would be associated with your Facebook profile.

Okay, so I’m being paranoid? Well, let’s keep reading.

“Even though Rooms is operated by Facebook, we do not permit you to connect your Facebook and Rooms accounts.” HA! Here is proof that the two services aren’t linked, right? Wrong. Keep reading: “We may share information about you within the companies and services operated by Facebook to understand and improve our services […]” There we have it. Although there is no “public” link between rooms and a user’s postings therein, the capability exists for Facebook and Rooms to correlate data points between a person’s Rooms account and their Facebook account. This would provide the ability to build upon and store a more in-depth digital profile. Imagine the worth to advertisers and marketers, insurance companies, credit agencies, and more!

The nail in the coffin, so to speak, of the service is that it falls under the same Data Use Policy, Cookies Policy, and Statement of Rights and Responsibilities that govern all of the Facebook services.  As such, users don’t even have the option to delete their data. The policy explains that users are permitted to delete their account, but “[…] removed content may remain in backup copies and logs for a period of time.”

Read the full Rooms privacy policy here. (I have to hand it to them, though. It’s a very short, simplified policy.)  Have fun hopping from room-to-room, but remember: you are still being watched and tracked. Facebook has every incentive to know more and more about its users. A service like Rooms isn’t something I would trust Facebook to operate. Maybe a more appropriate motto would be: “Track Everyone Together.”

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