Data is empowering. Personal information, available online, helped Donald Trump win the presidency, and people’s online identities fuel Facebook’s bottom line.
But with events like the U.S. election and the recent revelations of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal that has led to a probe by the Federal Trade Commission, online consumers and lawmakers are questioning the role of data in our lives and that has data scientists questioning their own futures.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has apologized for his company’s negligence, but for some data experts, the admission isn’t enough. We’re far from the end of the saga.
“Technologists in general need to grapple with this. We’re building tools that can quite clearly be used for evil or for less good. It’s not enough to say, ‘We didn’t mean for them to be used this way,'” said Daniel Mintz, chief data evangelist at software company Looker. “We need to have a community discussion of what does ethical technology use look like and people can subscribe to them or not.”
As former Google engineer Yonatan Zunger wrote for the Boston Globe over the weekend, computer science is undergoing a “reckoning” and an “ethics crisis” not unlike what has happened in chemistry with dynamite, in physics with nuclear bombs, and in human biology with eugenics. The data scientists Mashable spoke with said they didn’t see their jobs in jeopardy but did foresee future changes in the tech industry that are long overdue. But it remains to be seen who will take direct action and whether or not any of these moves are the right decision.
Data = $$$
Bill Gates declared “Content is King” in an essay published to Microsoft’s website back in 1996. “Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting,” Gates wrote in the opening. But ask any internet-focused company in 2018, and the answer you’ll hear will most likely be data.
Data has become a business in itself. Founders look to find underserved areas, get as much data as they can, and therefore, become valuable. If Facebook, or another tech giant, doesn’t buy a startup to keep it a standalone service or just want to acqui-hire executives, the data itself becoming a part of Facebook’s empire can be reason enough. When French entrepreneur Thomas Pasquet thought about his next company in digital advertising after selling his startup, he looked at smartphones.
“A company that started war on mobile would be the company with the most access to data, the most comprehensive data,” Pasquet told Mashable.
In 2014, Pasquet started Ogury and has since collected more than 400 million mobile user profiles that helps it analyze how people use apps. For example, Ogury’s data suggested that Snapchat’s active user base dropped in January, with 82.7 percent of people who had it downloaded using the app at the beginning of the month and only 77 percent doing so on January 31. For an advertising agency, those consumer insights can be valuable. (Snapchat releases daily active user data on a quarterly basis, and the quarter including January has yet to be made public. However, Snapchat says it had 187 million daily active users in the fourth quarter of last fiscal year, up from 178 million in the previous quarter.)
For Pasquet and Ogury, collecting more data can mean making more money. For Mintz and Looker, the overwhelming amount of data has created a business. Looker doesn’t provide new data sources. Rather, Looker is a tool that visualizes existing data sets.
“The things that got me excited about it were not the technical side of it but what it has empowered me to do. Data is the only way to make sense of what 7 or 8 million people want to do,” Mintz said.
Given that idea of scale, Mintz said he doesn’t see a future where data-fueled decisions and data-focused companies simply disappear. But change could come in how this information is collected and by what services.
Trust with transparency
While data can help advertisers — or anyone really — better understand the world, the scandal around Facebook and Cambridge Analytica stems from not being transparent about what exactly is happening behind the scenes.
Facebook users may have thought they were just taking a personality test for academic research or playing a fun cow game, but these actions led data scientists — not just the software engineers at Facebook — to have access to unsuspected users’ personal information.
“I think transparency is key to everything here. If you’re accessing someone’s data, I think it works best when they know why and what value you’re getting out of it,” said Patrick Ambron, CEO at BrandYourself.
Ambron’s business is fairly clear on how it makes money. That’s in part because it’s a subscription service rather than an advertising business like Facebook. BrandYourself sells a tool that scans people’s social media accounts and flags certain content as problematic.
“We’re a good case of it being a clear transaction of why you’re giving us your data, and you’re paying us money,” Ambron told Mashable.
Ogury also claims it is “clear” with user consent. All users are shown an agreement called “Consent to Collection and Use of Data,” which says that the data collected “may include information about your device, location, email, application, and browsing usage.” Pasquet, Ogury’s founder, said that at least one of three people reads the agreement and does not choose to opt into the tracking.
“At the start we said the consumers are smart, and we should ask them directly if they’re willing to share information,” Pasquet said.
On the other hand, Facebook users don’t necessarily understand exactly how their activities are being monitored and why. It can seem impossible to stop it even if you delete the app. Pasquet mentioned a frustrating example where someone could see a surprise vacation their significant other booked via online ad tracking. Impending UK regulations will create more data protections overseas, but data remains vulnerable in the U.S. and beyond, at least for now
Facebook could be forced or decide on its own to change that by updating its user agreement and surfacing it more often to its users, Ambron said. To prevent another Cambridge Analytica scandal, he also suggested creating stricter contracts with companies that use its data. Facebook should still make anonymized data available for academic researchers, like it’s doing with Stanford economics professor Raj Chetty’s America inequality study, but they need to do more thorough vetting and continuously audit, Ambron added.
Beyond Facebook and its changing relationships with data partners, more technologists should speak with lawmakers, ethicists, and other stakeholders in the years ahead, Mintz, Looker’s data chief, said.
“We as a society haven’t figured out yet how to keep the societal contract agile enough to keep up with the real rapid pace of change, and I think we have to,” Mintz said. “Technological change is not going to slow down, and it can’t just be a free for all.”