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Inside Facebook's totally serious, nonironic privacy pop-up

A welcome mat at the trailer's door reads: "It's good to see you."

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A sign from Facebook's privacy pop-up in New York.

Alfred Ng/CNET

Like a promoted post, the "It's Your Facebook" trailer popped up and left plenty of people unsure as to why they were seeing it.

In Manhattan's Bryant Park on Thursday morning, Facebook opened an interactive pop-up that's focused on privacy. Inside the trailer, posters explained to visitors how to manage their data and targeted ads.

An hour before the pop-up opened, people walked by and gave it long, confused stares. Some scoffed as they left. Others walked inside to ask Facebook why they were seeing certain ads. The first person in, a mother, came in for the hot chocolate, and stayed for the privacy settings explanation.

Outside, the pop-up was decorated with wooden panels. A welcome mat offered visitors a cheerful greeting. "It's good to see you," it read.

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Inside, string lights and signs posing questions adorned the walls. "Why do I see ads from Facebook on other apps and websites?" one read. "Does Facebook sell my data?" another asked before answering,"No, Facebook does not sell data to advertisers." By a marshmallow stand, a poster under the Facebook logo read, "Always Be Open."

The privacy pop-up isn't the first time Facebook has taken this sort of direct approach with the public, though it was the first in the US. The social network held similar events in the UK, Dubai, Ireland and Germany earlier this year.

The effort is part of the social network's push to win back public trust after 2018 proved challenging for its trustworthiness. Facebook was hit with multiple controversies this year, including the massive Cambridge Analytica data abuse scandal, foreign influence campaigns, and a major breach affecting 29 million accounts.  

"We know this has been a hard year for Facebook, we understand that," Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan said at the pop-up. "And that's why we want to do everything we can to make sure people feel safe and understand how to protect their information."

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A welcome mat at Facebook's privacy pop-up.

Alfred Ng/CNET

Privacy experts attributed a surge in data concerns to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which helped prompt a majority of Americans to changed their settings on the social network.

The pop-up was designed to help people get comfortable with the privacy settings. But it had trouble winning over skeptics.

"There's no such thing as privacy on websites like this," said Judy Monaghan, a mother from Virginia who was visiting New York with her family, as she stopped at the pop-up. "I think it's been proven from all the hacks this year," she added, with an eye roll.  

Inside the trailer, Facebook staff helped anyone stopping in, showing them new privacy settings, which in March the social network set out to make easier to find.

Visitors saw which ads were targeted at them, as Facebook employees explained that they could adjust ads based on their interests. Still, you can't escape them, which was made abundantly clear when a visitor asked, "What if I remove all my interests?"

"You'll always have ads," a staffer said. "It'll relearn things about you as you use Facebook."

Give the company credit for being forthright. There's no setting that will prevent ads. I deleted my Facebook account and created a new one with all the privacy settings enabled. The number of advertisers quadrupled within a month.

Another sign in the pop-up explained Facebook's business model. It's no easy task, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg found out in April, during testimony before DC lawmakers. "Facebook is free to everyone. To keep it that way, we run ads," he told them. "But we don't sell your information to anyone, we show ads relevant to your interests. You can control the kinds of ads you see."

The only way to prevent ads and get ultimate privacy would be to delete your account. The pop-up didn't have signs explaining how to do that.

Still, Egan said staffers at the trailer would help people delete their accounts if they wanted to.

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The view outside Facebook's pop-up in Bryant Park.

Alfred Ng / CNET

Outside, Andrew Krinsky, an attorney whose office was just a few blocks away, walked toward the trailer because he wanted to ask how his firm could reach a larger audience on social media. 

He was surprised to learn the pop-up offered Facebook privacy lessons. Still, he had questions for the company.

"My kids are on Facebook, and when they were younger, they posted things I wish they hadn't posted," Krinsky said. He wanted to know if Facebook had guidelines for information you shouldn't post on social media.

These types of questions are what Facebook hoped to address at its pop-up -- helping people control the ads they see, removing apps they've connected to their accounts and managing their visibility.

Facebook also set up this pop-up -- and plans to open more in 2019 -- to get feedback on what it could be doing better, Egan said. "Do more" is the most common suggestion, she said.

Part of that means physically showing up and answering people's questions face-to-face, she said. Even if they are skeptical.

"We want to meet people where they are," Egan said. "If people have questions, we want to come to them, and answer them."

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