Facebook's Graph Search gets more data
On paper at least, it's not a great time to be in a business that's been entrusted with housing personal data in the cloud.
The recent revelations about a clandestine US government surveillance operation threatens to inflict collateral damage on the likes of Google, Facebook, and Microsoft as users pause to reflect on the Orwellian implications of whistleblower Edward Snowden's bombshell.
The news has the tech giants scrambling to reassure users that there is no voluntary complicity or some backdoor pipeline that allows the US security apparatus to tap directly into their servers and databases.
The dust is not even close to settling, yet according to Facebook's director of engineering, Lars Rasmussen, it's already business as usual.
Dr Rasmussen, who is in Sydney on a private visit, said that while he could not predict how people would react, his gut feeling was that the scare would not lead to a mass of people yanking their data or dropping off the grid.
"I don't think it will change people's [online] behaviour in a great way," the 44-year-old Danish-born software engineer said.
And Dr Rasmussen should know a thing or two about the online world. He was the co-founder of what became Google Maps, after he sold the technology to Google and joined the company's Sydney office in 2004.
In 2010, he quit his job at Google, signed-up with Facebook and moved to California after his pet project, a messaging platform called Wave, was axed by senior management.
Since joining Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Dr Rasmussen has been working on a project called Graph Search, which is designed to enable the discovery and filtering of information shared on Facebook. The company describes Graph Search as its "third pillar", which means it's a big deal for Facebook.
The project has been on trial since its launch in January with between 15 to 20 million Facebook users currently using it.
Dr Rasmussen says his team has been fine-tuning the service and is preparing to push Graph Search out to all of Facebook's 1.1 billion active users worldwide later this year.
AN END TO OBSCURITY
Graph Search, however, is not without its critics. Privacy advocates say that boosting the "discoverability" of content can remove the cover of obscurity as a privacy safety net, opening the way for exploitation by snoopers and stalkers.
"... the more accessible our Facebook information becomes, the less obscurity protects our interests," academics Woodrow Hartzog and Evan Selinger wrote in The Atlantic earlier this year when Graph Search was first unveiled.
"Obscurity is the idea that when information is hard to obtain or understand, it is, to some degree, safe."
Dr Rasmussen says that privacy concerns were at the forefront of considerations in building the search function and that prior to launch, Facebook's updated settings to allow users to more easily monitor the exposure of their personal data.
"The search completely respects privacy," Dr Rasmussen said. "You can only search things that people have shared with you, where you are explicitly included in the audience."
He also revealed that later this year, Graph Search's net will widen to include the information contained in users' News Feeds, which comprises a motherlode of personal data.
"Building a system that can search over all that data in real-time and is privacy aware is just a lot of work and we're getting close to the end of that."
HEALTHY PRIVACY DEBATE
Dr Rasmussen, who is leaving his home in San Francisco in August to work out of Facebook's London office, says it's not surprising that the social networking company regularly cops flak over how personal data is managed.
"It's a good and healthy debate and every year we get better at understanding exactly what people want in terms of making it easier to share things," he said.
He acknowledges that in the stampede to embrace social media and share more intimate details about their lives, there has been a significant lowering of the privacy bar over the past few years.
"I have experience this myself that my willingness to share things online has increased. But not just because time passes, but because there's a real material benefit in my life in sharing those things."
Facebook's most recent data update shows that the average number of content items shared daily as of May 2013 is 4.75 billion, up 94 per cent since August 2012.