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What UW data expert wants to ask Facebook executives

Mar 20, 2018
In The News

Facebook has tentatively agreed to brief the House Judiciary Committee as soon as Wednesday, according to new reports, over the growing controversy tied to allegations of data mining by Cambridge Analytica, a firm with ties to the Trump presidential campaign.

Elected leaders in Europe and the United States are demanding answers and testimony from Cambridge Analytica and Facebook executives, after reports as many as 50 million accounts were accessed without users' permission.

“I definitely think we need transparency,” Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, told the Washington Post in an interview on Tuesday, joining calls by other lawmakers to ask CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify.

“I think Mr. Zuckerberg should make himself available to discuss where technology is going in the future and the challenges that we face in this realm and add to the debate, not be silent on it,” Cantwell continued.

“Tech leaders, it’s time for them to step up and take this privacy, and also the spread of disinformation and misinformation, seriously,” said Assistant Professor Jevin West of University of Washington’s Information School.

West studies data in the digital age for a living, as well as the rising trend of disinformation. What would he ask Facebook executives if they agree to testify?

“I would want to know how many of your users are bots. That’s a hard question, but I think it’s something they should make a strong attempt to answer and try to make available to us. That could tell us a lot,” said West.

Professor West said he would also ask Facebook if users are notified when their data is potentially breached or accessed by an outside firm.

“One of the most important things for users to be aware of is this kind of information is being used to manipulate opinions and they’re not putting ‘this is sponsored by so and so.’ This is happening on both sides of political spectrum,” said West.

Members of the Senate Commerce Committee sent Zuckerberg a letter on Monday, asking him for written responses by March 29 to a number of questions about the Cambridge Analytica data-mining reports and the company's privacy policies.

Additionally, lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee have sent a letter to former Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie requesting an interview.

“The revelations about Facebook user data being secretly acquired by Cambridge Analytica, a vendor linked to the Trump campaign, is just another example of how important it is for these investigations to continue,” said Representative Denny Heck, D-Washington, who serves on the Intelligence Committee. “It’s time for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix, and others who may be involved in these activities as well as any cover-ups to be brought before the House Intelligence Committee to answer all relevant questions surrounding these actions.”

Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission and state Attorneys General have launched investigations into the breach.

“No business wants to be regulated, but the devices, these platforms, are so integral to how we function, day to day, and the decisions we make as a society in a democracy that we should be having those conversations,” said Professor West. “The European union is ahead on this particular issue.”

While that complex conversation begins in the United States, West cautions it’s difficult for users to completely protect themselves online.

“It’s very hard nowadays, even if you follow every single rule, your friends may make mistakes, and they may get their information breached, and if you’re on a contact list, or you’re a friend of them, that gets pulled,” said West.

West advises checking all privacy settings, turning off anything that reveals location and also turn off apps if you’re not currently using them. He also urging asking public officials about what can be done to better protect personal information and hold tech leaders accountable.

“I don’t think we as a society recognize how big of a problem it is in protecting people’s personal information,” said West.

Meanwhile, Facebook released a statement Tuesday that read in part: "The entire company is outraged; we were deceived. We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies."