However, Libra could also erode users’ privacy. The Libra Association says it will safeguard privacy by separating transaction data from users’ real-world identities, but Facebook has a mixed record on this front. When it acquired WhatsApp in 2014, Facebook promised it would not cross-reference user data between platforms, but the company was recently fined by European regulators for breaking that commitment. Libra will store metadata about every transaction, which could be cross-referenced with apps like WhatsApp to build detailed user profiles. Notably, Facebook argued in court this month that users have “no privacy interest” in any information they upload to it, even if they select the highest possible privacy settings.
Even if user data is made fully anonymous, Libra offers a new avenue for corporations to acquire detailed information about the lives of their customers. Digital technologies make it possible to capture and record actions that are technically conducted in public but have always been difficult and/or expensive to surveil: where we linger in grocery stores, or if we frequent bars showing unauthorized streams of soccer games. Such quotidian behavior has traditionally remained obscure to outsiders, providing a bubble of ambient privacy around our lives. Libra will produce a trove of fine-grained information about everyday life, potentially extending the business model that Shoshana Zuboff terms “surveillance capitalism.”
Because Libra is targeted at unbanked people across a wide variety of countries, there are already concerns that it will separate the poor from the rich, expose users to incompetent or malicious app design, and make users more visible to nondemocratic regimes. Facebook’s “Free Basics” program to expand Internet access in developing countries spurred controversy before it was blocked by India in 2016. Critics see similar dangers with Libra.
Ben Power is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.