Transparency begins at Home


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.

7 thoughts on “Transparency begins at Home

  1. Kim

    I do not know how we can achieve balance between consumers and corporations in control and access to personal data (and I mean access to data about me that apparently I’m not allowed to see or even know about) until the vanguards of what’s possible–those in Silicon Valley–agree to make it so. Users have no say over their data because the technorati have concluded that their job is to write algorithms that do the “hard work” of giving users what they “really want,” rather than creating tools that help users decide for themselves. Users are too stupid, inattentive or unskilled to do for themselves, these software engineers believe, so the only answer is to personalize the services for them, and that requires profiles and that requires personal data. Any attempt to prevent access to personal data on the part of these companies, then, is messing with the business model.

    Given that software engineers essentially run the world–what they put into code becomes what’s possible–it’s a bit concerning that these individuals are trained to reduce the control and impact humans have on technical systems in the name of providing simpler, more convenient or faster “smart services.” How about building tools that help me make myself smarter? It’s either a smokescreen or incredibly limited thinking to argue that my personal data is the only path to a better digital future, and that giving me control over it might bring growth to a halt.

  2. Dieter Mueller

    It is good to know that the “It’s-not-my-fucking-Problem”-Gag-Reflex hasn’t died out in the digital Age.

    “Openness” has become a One-Way-Street for all these Data-Squids.

    It is Time that the Public starts to own social Spaces on the Net and demands Open-Source-Tool for their Use.

  3. Cindy Wolff

    For years now, librarians have wanted the kind of transparency that Zuckerberg is asking for. I hope we do get transparency, but I am not surprised at the amount of free speech points ($=influence) it took to garner so much attention.

  4. mpinco

    For social media YOU are the product. Given that fact, now let’s begin the discussion on transparency.

    The outcome of this discussion is now much different.

  5. Artemas Gruzdef

    I’m sorry, but that’s absurd. I chose to give my information to Facebook, and I could choose not to, or I could choose to give it to a competitor. The government, on the other hand, knew a lot about me before I could make any choices at all, and I still cannot “unsubscribe” from the government even if I want to. The extent to which trust can be abused by Facebook and by the government is so vastly different.

  6. Tim

    It is only “vastly different” if you perceive the government and facebook as different entities, however, as they are collecting the same information, sharing your data and using that your data in ways that you do not either know about or can control, then I think it is safe to consider them extremely similar if not essentially the same.
    I teach at a Junior High and I think the greater worry is how this data-minding is affecting the child. I show them the “Barbie” search -then and now- and we discuss things, yet the sophistication of digital manipulation continues to grow. Corporate goals are not always human, (or humane) goals. Our best humanistic understandings are being pressured through our interactions with media as never before. The secretive nature of the manipulation assists in making it even more powerful.
    I live in Canada and we’re in a similar mess with our government syping. The sanctity of personal privacy is supposed to be protected by law. As a result of your Patriot Act we cannot store information on the cloud, nor can we store information on any server located in our own country that is owned by an American company. It is against the law to do so, as we must protect the privacy of our citizens. This has long been the law, however, most our institutions were sleepily accepting of some violations. Now, we have woken up. This means, no google mail, no google docs, no MSN etc…. In essence we are moving back to controlling our own data on site.

  7. Rich Wellman

    With Facebook and other “free” internet products, the customer becomes the product. Facebook produces data by the truckload. That is their product, data. They sell it to big business in the form of targeted ads. The NSA is just another customer for the data.

Comments are closed.