What does the nation’s leading privacy researcher, and a frequent but even-handed Facebook critic, think of the Facebook mood manipulation study controversy? It’s a case of “shooting the messenger,” he told me. It’s also a rare peek “through the looking-glass” at the future of privacy.
Alessandro Acquisti’s name might be on more privacy and behavioral studies than any researcher in the world; it’s hard to argue that his research has had a dominant impact on scholarship in the area. Among his most famed discoveries, Aquisti’s research has shown that companies use social media to discriminate while hiring; that it’s possible to use facial recognition software and social networks do identify people you pass on the street; and to predict Americans’ Social Security number simply by knowing their name and other basic, publicly available information.
Acquisti has been involved in designing hundreds of studies, and he has a deep research interest in privacy, so I asked him for his reaction to the Facebook research dust-up. His response might surprise you.
The reaction to the study seems like a case of shooting the messenger. Facebook (and probably many other online services) engages daily in user manipulation. There is no such thing as a “neutral” algorithm; Facebook decides what to show you, how, and when, in order to satisfy an externally inscrutable objective function (Optimize user interactions? Maximize the time they spend on Facebook, or the amount of information they disclose, or the number of ads they will click? Who knows?) The difference is that, with this study, the researchers actually revealed what had been done, why, and with what results. Thus, this study offers an invaluable wake-up call – a peek through the looking glass of the present and future of privacy and social media.
Those attacking the study may want to reflect upon the fact that we have been part of the Facebook experiment since the day any of us created an account, and that privacy is much more than protection of personal information — it is about protection against the control that others can have over us once they have enough information about us.