One of the most startling revelations of Facebook’s ongoing Cambridge Analytica controversy is just how easy it was for a third-party developer to access millions of people’s personal data without their knowledge — even if they hadn’t downloaded the app themselves.
That’s because Facebook’s policies prior to 2014 were much more lax than they are today. At the time, apps could scrape data from both their users and the friends of those users, unless you had your privacy setting sufficiently locked down.
The company actually built an “Anonymous Login” tool that was specifically created so that Facebook users could log into third-party services without making all of their data available to developers.
But the once-hyped feature never launched. Facebook quietly killed the project, allegedly due to lack of interest.
That wasn’t supposed to be the case, though. Anonymous Login was one of the first new features announced at Facebook’s annual F8 developer conference in 2014, billed as part of a new effort to put “people first.”
“We know that some people are scared of pressing this blue button,” Zuckerberg said, referring to the now-ubiquitous “login in with Facebook” button. “We don’t ever want anyone to be surprised about how they’re sharing on Facebook, that’s not good for anyone.”
The solution: an alternative Facebook login that would allow users to sign up to use an app without handing over personal data to the developer. Called Anonymous Login, the tool offered the same ease of use as the normal Facebook login, but Facebook would keep your identity anonymous to the developer.
Facebook’s ‘Anonymous Login’ feature that never launched.
“The idea are is that even if you don’t want an app to know who you are yet, you still want a streamlined experience of singing in,” Zuckerberg said. “This is going to let you try apps without fear.”
But even though the feature was showcased prominently during Zuckerberg’s keynote, it never launched. Not only that, Facebook barely mentioned it ever again.
The company confirmed that it officially killed the feature in August 2015, 16 months after the initial announcement, due to lack of interest from developers. As Recode reported that year, there was little incentive for developers to adopt the login feature.
Developers, much like Facebook, love data. The more they know about their users, the more effectively they can target them with ads, or figure out how to get them to spend more time in their apps. This is impossible to do without knowing their actual identity.
But it also seems that Facebook did very little to encourage developers to adopt the feature, either. It never launched more widely beyond the initial group of developers, for one. And, despite touting it as part of a new “people first” approach, the company didn’t seem to care much at the end of they day whether it was actually used.
To be clear, Anonymous Login couldn’t have prevented the Cambridge Analytica fiasco. By all accounts, the data in question had already been obtained by the time Facebook introduced the feature.
But it’s an idea that’s worth revisiting knowing now what we should have known then about the consequences of handing over all our data to Facebook’s developers so willingly. At a time when distrust of Facebook, and the services that plug into it, is at an all-time high, having a feature like Anonymous Login could help users feel like they have some semblance of control over their data.