Facebook’s data should be a public resource

Vess Popov, an expert in big data and psychometrics, spoke at Brain Bar in Budapest on the future of data. In his talk he shared his concern that platforms like Facebook are becoming more closed off. Their research is more secretive than ever and less of it is making its way to the scientific community and the general public than ever before.

Popov’s concern is understandable as he works for the Psychometrics Center at the University of Cambridge, a research institution that pioneered the study of psychology through big data analysis. They’re basically the ‘good guy’ version of Cambridge Analytica, which infamously manipulated voters based on their psychological profiles.

To find out more about the current landscape in psychological analysis in big data, TNW sat down with Popov on the bank of the Danube and asked him what the future actually holds when it comes to our personal data. Judging by Popov’s answers, the outlook is bleak, but there could be a possible solution.

We can’t trust companies with our data

Unfortunately it took a massive scandal like the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica disaster to get all of us interested in how our personal data is being handled. But where do we go from here? One has to ask if there’s any steps we can take in order to completely trust companies with our data. How can we assure they’re handling our data correctly and not using it to create harmful algorithms?

“The sad answer is we can never know for sure,” says Popov with cynical realism. “Only thing we can do is work on the incentives.” The problem we’re currently facing originates in the defunct system we’ve built around people’s data. We reward companies for abusing our personal information:

Right now the financial incentive to do psychological targeting and marketing is absolutely huge. We published a paper showing that when the ‘personality’ of the ad matches the personality of the customer, it’s twice as profitable.

So there’s nothing to prevent people doing that. And actually, people should be doing that in a way that involves the user because, frankly, I want to get more personal ads. Provided I know what data you’re using to personalize it.

That’s why Popov believes we’ll never be able to trust companies in a ‘blanket way’ when it comes to data handling — we’ll always have to evaluate it case by case. At the core of problem are destructive incentives which need to be changed from a market or regulatory perspective, but if that fails, Popov adds, the impetus for change falls on us, the individuals.

But even if we succeed in changing the fundamentals of our current data market, will it truly chip away at the profit data giants have made off our personal information? We’ve already lost our data to these companies, and our personality hasn’t changed since our data was mined. Doesn’t that mean that companies like Facebook will keep selling our information to third-parties, even after we’ve restricted their access to our data?

Yes absolutely they can. They’ve also been able to track users that don’t even have Facebook accounts — and they’re not unique in doing that. Every large advertiser does exactly the same thing. This is how our advertising infrastructure is built, on the basis of tracking. And tracking, as it currently works, is completely inconsistent with consent — even under the previous data protection law, before GDPR.

The reason is that you can’t say I consent to something that I don’t even know is on, or even understand how it works. Like that 100 ad exchange servers, each of them running a private auction for a split second just to show me an advert. I don’t understand that, I haven’t consented to it — but I don’t have a choice. I might be able to disable cookies or just stop using the internet, but then you’re placing the burden on users rather than companies that make all the money.

Popov emphasizes that even though the burden shouldn’t be on users, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be more involved. People need to be given proper control and oversight over their data — and legislation like GDPR goes a long way in giving people proper control over their data, but it won’t happen overnight. While we’re waiting for these protections to settle in, what has to be done in the mean time?

Credit: Brain Bar