In response to last week’s disclosures about the NSA’s Prism spy program, Facebook, together with other tech companies like Google and Microsoft, has called on the government to be more “transparent” about its collection of online data. Writes Facebook’s top lawyer, Ted Ullyot, in a statement:
As Mark [Zuckerberg] said last week, we strongly encourage all governments to be much more transparent about all programs aimed at keeping the public safe. … We would welcome the opportunity to provide a transparency report that allows us to share with those who use Facebook around the world a complete picture of the government requests we receive, and how we respond. We urge the United States government to help make that possible by allowing companies to include information about the size and scope of national security requests we receive, and look forward to publishing a report that includes that information.
That all seems very noble, and I applaud Facebook for taking such a strong public stand in support of giving its users “a complete picture” of how data about them is being collected and used. But the company hardly has to wait for the government’s permission to give its users a clearer accounting of what personal information is being collected about them and how it’s being used. After all, the reason spy agencies request data from Facebook (and other internet operators) is because that’s where the data is—Facebook has already collected it, parsed it, and stored it. The NSA goes to Facebook for the same reason that Willie Sutton went to banks.
While it awaits a reply from the government, Facebook could immediately launch its own effort to give “transparency reports” to its members. It could provide each of its users with access to a simple, personalized data log that shows what particular pieces of information it has stored about them, when it collected the data, from which sites or apps the data was collected (including third-party sites and apps), and with what other organizations, commercial as well as governmental, the data has been shared. If Facebook is really interested in providing users with “a complete picture” of how data about them is being used, that would be an excellent, and obvious, place to start.
Image from Time.