Privacy advocate Christopher Soghoian broke open the story of how Facebook tried to use global PR giant Burson-Marsteller to smear Google in the press. He was pitched to ghost-write the op-ed, but posted the email exchange online instead.
In his first interview since the story broke, he describes the strange chain of events, the laughable notion of Facebook criticizing anyone on privacy and how USA Today almost got the story wrong. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation.
So how did this all begin?
Well I wasn’t the only one who got this pitch to write an op-ed about Google, a bunch of privacy advocates here in D.C. did. But I was the one who decided to post it, and expose what was going on. I get pitches on a daily basis, but it’s usually a company talking how great their product, so this one made me immediately suspicious, even more so when they wouldn’t reveal who the were working for.
Did you agree with the argument about what Google was doing?
I would never have agreed to the pitch no matter what, but I was surprised at the case they were trying to make. I’m a fairly outspoken privacy advocate and there are many things Google does that are really bad on privacy, but this isn’t the thing that is keeping me up at night. It’s something that I had never really worried about.
So why did they come to you?
It seemed pretty clear what they wanted was my name and I could get away with as little work as possible, they would place it and ghost write, they would just use my name. Now that we know Facebook is behind this, I’m frankly shocked they would try and use me. I’ve had run in with Facebook before, found security flaws in their service before and called them out on policies like allowing advertisers to target people based on sensitive things like their sexuality.
So what was Facebook thinking?
I really think this was an attempt by one large company to stab a dagger in the back of a competitor. For five or six months Microsoft has been making noise about Google’s privacy problems. Microsoft was the first browser to include a do not track options, and they realized privacy is an area where they can compete with Google and get good press.
The difference is Microsoft can do it publicly, because they don’t have their own privacy problems. Facebook is no better than Google on these issues, so to make these attacks they have to hide behind these PR companies. If they tried it in public, under their own name, people would laugh in their faces.
Does this kind of thing happen a lot.
The way it works is some story breaks in the WSJ about some privacy problem and then a few weeks later the company is testifying to congress. USA today didn’t really reveal this, but they were basically in the very last stage of having a story a front page story ready to go, based on the letter from Burson-Marsteller. At the last minute they saw the email exchange I posted, and realized they had been bamboozled. Privacy makes headlines these days. If this story had been pitched to the WSJ, they would have laughed in their faces, but USA Today was a little more gullible.