Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.) sent an open letter to the Federal Trade Commission on July 9 asking them to investigate a recent Facebook News Feed experiment, according to The Verge.
Earlier this summer, Facebook announced that it had manipulated over half a million users’ News Feeds as a part of a psychological study in conjunction with Cornell University in 2012, according to The New York Times. The company adjusted users’ feeds by removing either positive or negative posts in an attempt to study how one person can be affected by the emotions of those around him or her. They found that users with more negative News Feeds subsequently posted more negative posts, and vice versa. In other words, people’s emotions are, to some degree, affected by those around them.
The experiment raised serious questions of ethics and legality, which prompted Warner to urge the FTC to “fully explore the potential ramifications,” according to The Verge. In his letter, Warner recognizes that the experiment was barely noticeable to the users. However, he fears that, if left unchecked, data-mining practices such as this could become more commonplace and their effects could become more noticeable. While he doesn’t expect the FTC to regulate the issue, he asks for a greater level of transparency.
“The very fact that important questions remain unanswered highlights the lack of transparency around these business practices,” he wrote. “While Facebook may not have been legally required to conduct an independent ethical review of this behavioral research, the experiment invites questions about whether procedures should be in place to govern this type of research.”
Warner’s concerns over big data are particularly justified in light of the continued unraveling of the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices. On July 5, The Washington Post revealed some of the communications intercepted by the NSA, which were given to them by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Legally, the NSA has the authority to target foreign nationals overseas, which means that they can gather and store any information or communications pertaining to that target. In order to collect information on any one other than their targets, they must obtain a warrant based on probable cause. However, the cache of information leaked by Snowden tells a different story.
“Nine of 10 account holders found in a large cache of intercepted conversations … were not the intended surveillance targets but were caught in a net the agency had cast for somebody else,” according to The Post.
The information gathered includes pictures, emails, text messages and other private information that had “tenuous links” to legal foreign targets. Much of it has been deemed useless by analysts at the NSA, yet it is still retained by the government.
Similar to Warner’s concern over the lack of transparency in data-mining conducted by big companies like Facebook, there is absolutely no transparency in the government’s surveillance practices.
“Big data has the potential to help power economic activity and growth while serving consumers in meaningful ways,” Warner says in his letter to the FTC. “Companies like Facebook may have to perform research on a broad scale in order to improve their products. However, because of the constantly evolving nature of social media, big data, and the internet, many of these issues currently fall into unchartered territory.”