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Identity and Authentication Services

Greek Heroes, Facebook and Trust

Created: 10 May 2010 • Updated: 08 Aug 2012
nicolas_popp's picture
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When Achilles was a baby, the oracle predicted that he would die in battle from an arrow. Thetis, Achilles' mother who did not want her son to die decided to dip Achilles' body into the water of a river that would make him immortal. Unfortunately, Thetis had held Achilles by the heel which was not washed over by the magic water. Achilles grew up to be a Great War hero, whose apparent invincibility had turned him into a legend. But one day, an arrow shot at him was lodged in his heel, killing him instantly.

When it comes to consumer identity, Facebook looks more and more like the Achilles' of identity. Every day, it is growing more powerful and invincible. Yet, a growing stream of concerns is gradually exposing the social warrior's vulnerability to security and privacy. Nevertheless, as a website, Facebook core usage matrix is mind-boggling:

• More than 400 million active users
• 50% of our active users log on to Facebook in any given day
• Average user has 130 friends
• People spend over 500 billion minutes per month on Facebook

However, Facebook true ambition's may well reside beyond the confine of its own Web site. If one combines Facebook Connect (authentication++), OAuth (authorization) and the Social Graph API, it is crystal clear that Facebook strategy is to become the identity fabric for the Internet. By turning the social network into an identity infrastructure, the Facebook APIs could enable an even larger business opportunity. By extending the Facebook business over external websites, the Social Graph APIs open the door to transactional business models such as Cost per action advertising, eCommerce and payment. There again, when it comes to numbers, the social network hero is showing Homeric promise:

• More than 80,000 websites and devices (including iPhone and Xbox) have implemented Facebook Connect since it launched in December 2008
• More than 60 million Facebook users use Facebook Connect each month.
• Two-thirds of ComScore's US Top 100 websites and half of ComScore's Global Top 100 websites have implemented Facebook Connect.
• Sites like the Huffington Post have seen a 500% increase in Facebook referrals after implementing Facebook Connect.
• 500,000 applications have been built on Facebook and the growth of social gaming (playdom, Zynga, Playfish, etc) is still in its infancy.

So, what could go wrong? Where could the enemy arrow strike its fatal blow to our hero? Could it be over this security glitch that exposes our chat messages to friends? Perhaps, these controversial default privacy settings that leaves our identity increasingly public? Will the threat arise from a growing reputation as a corporation trying to take advantage of our personal data to 'help itself -- and its advertising and business partners'? If there is something that could stand in the way of Facebook, it is probably Facebook itself. Indeed, the growing controversy and erosion of consumer trust surrounding Facebook privacy and security nonchalance may eventually become the Achilles' heel of the young identity giant.

Facebook is clearly an extremely innovative company and a successful platform. Of course, it must keep on running fast against the agile Twitter and the powerful Google of the world who are certainly eying with envy its privileged position as the leading Internet social platform. No doubts that the investors are placing tremendous pressure on management to drive revenue growth. Nevertheless, Facebook needs to slow down and consider the long terms implications of being the de-facto custodian of our digital lives. It must start fulfilling the responsibility that comes with millions of digital identities under management. If it is true that today's Internet generation may have less privacy concern than their elders, in the long run, consumers will not allow Facebook to manage and control their identities unless they can trust the platform.

Eventually, Facebook will have to "do the right thing" for the consumers, sometime in spite of their ignorance digital risks, and surely, despite a business model that encourages Facebook to look the other way when it comes to privacy and security. Yes, the Achilles' heel is very real, it is being exposed every week in the press, and the temptation is growing for privacy zealots and regulators who are assiduously watching the missteps. Good common business sense aside, it is time for Facebook to take responsibility and leadership for the immense security, privacy and trust challenges that our digital identities require. Maybe, it is even time for the social network to start promoting elements of security, privacy and trust within its core platform.