Dubai, United Arab Emirates - 07, August 2019: With social media in full bloom, researchers at the United Arab Emirates University are delving deeper into the topic by finding out how Facebook uses the data it has collected.
At the end of last semester, Dr Fida Dankar, Assistant Professor in Security, set out to study the project along with three students from her college.
“We want to know how Facebook is using our data and what kind of experiment it is conducting,” she explained. “Moreover, we want to look at the settings of Facebook and find out whether we have any autonomy in deciding about such data uses.”
Her plan is to carry out a survey to observe the manner in which Facebook manages and uses customer data, along with all the associated privacy threats. This will mean finding out secondary data usage, who the data is shared with, how it is collected, for how long, and, most importantly, whether it is using the data as a platform to exert influence on users, to be able to conclude whether it affects the user’s autonomy.
“We always hear on the news snippets about Facebook and their secondary uses of data,” Dr Dankar noted. “So, we wanted to collect all this information together and put it in one manuscript to inform the users of what is happening and discover how our data is being used and whether it influences our decisions in any way.”
The team started planning as to what they should be looking for. Currently still in the stage of gathering information, they discovered a lot of information on the two aspects of secondary usage of data and experiments. Based on readings from trusted sources such as research papers and magazines, results have revealed experiments are, in fact, being conducted on users as “guinea pigs”.
The next step will involve looking at Facebook’s privacy settings to observe whether users can prevent these “questionable” privacy practices, by changing their privacy settings or not. “Once we find the answer, this will guide what we are going to do next,” Dr Dankar explained.
“If we are able to prevent some of these practices or our data from being used or shared, or if we can prevent the profiling of users or us being part of certain experiments without knowing – if we can change this through our privacy settings, then we will provide guidance to users depending on how much privacy aware they are or how they view their privacy.”
The guidelines will depend on the users, as some are considered very private while others are not. The aim is to understand the user’s aspirations and, based on these, provide recommendations. “It is about dividing users between groups as to how they view privacy and provide personalized recommendations,” she added. “No one reads privacy settings, they are so complicated, so we want to simplify it for them.”
She mentioned a lot of secondary usage of users’ data was found to be conducted without the user’s knowledge, some of which are not publicized.
A publicized example is the major Facebook-Cambridge Analytica political scandal early last year, when it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of millions of people's Facebook profiles and used it for political advertising purposes.
“Now the problem is that somehow, when you open Facebook, you agree to their terms and conditions, which no one reads,” Dr Dankar concluded. “According to Facebook, their data uses do not violate users’ privacy, so our goal is not to investigate Facebook’s violation of privacy laws, it is rather to inform and educate users about collection and usage of their personal data. Eventually, we want to publish the research, potentially sometime next year”.