Facebook Doesn’t Want Researchers Knowing What Data they Collect

Academics, journalists, data security advocates and lawyers are rallying behind New York University researchers in a showdown with Facebook about its proposal that they suspend the processing of data revealing who is being micro-targeted by political advertising on the world’s dominant social media site. Everyone knows about the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal from 2016, but it appears Facebook still doesn’t want more transparency when it comes to its actions and who it is targeting with political ads. Facebook threatened NYU’s plugin is illegal, while the NYU researchers argue their extension is crucial to understanding how Facebook channels its ads, who it targets, and why.

How Does NYU’s Tool Work?

Ad Observer is an extension or tool you add to your Google Chrome or Firefox browsers only. The tool copies the ads you see on Facebook, so anyone, on any part of the political spectrum, can see them in their public database. If you consent, you can enter basic demographic information about yourself in the tool to help improve their understanding of why advertisers targeted you. They never ask for any identifiable information and are attempting to hold Facebook and these political advertising groups accountable for what information they are sending to the public.

What did FB say?

In a letter to the researchers on October 16, a Facebook executive demanded the researchers disable a special plug-in for Chrome and Firefox browsers used by 6,500 volunteers across the United States and delete the data obtained. The executive said the tool violates Facebook rules prohibiting automated bulk collection of data from the site. According to KTLA, a company spokesman said in an emailed statement Saturday that Facebook “informed NYU months ago that moving forward with a project to scrape people’s Facebook information would violate our terms.”

Facebook claims it is attempting to protect its users’ privacy and data, but the tool does not collect any sort of personal information or data and it is all anonymized. In reality, Facebook is hanging on to the last thread of obstruction that hides the fact it is often spreading misinformation to specific targeted users because political firms and associations are paying it a lot of money to do so. 

“That Facebook is trying to shut down a tool crucial to exposing disinformation in the run up to one of the most consequential elections in U.S. history is alarming,” said Ramya Krishnan, an attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, representing the researchers. “The public has a right to know what political ads are being run and how they are being targeted. Facebook shouldn’t be allowed to be the gatekeeper to information necessary to safeguard our democracy.”