Experts: Digital Living Will (Mostly) Be Good

Slightly less than half of technology experts believe that digital living will help us over the course of the next decade. That’s one primary finding in a recent study of 1,150 technology experts in a joint effort between Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imaging the Internet Center.  The report, issued today, comes on the heels of several high profile technology debacles including Facebook’s recent admission that 87 million users’ data was compromised. Although the authors admit that their findings are not representative of all points of view, the study nevertheless “reveal[s] a wide range of valuable observations based on current trends.”

The experts that comprised the sample were asked a single question: “Over the next decade, how will changes in digital life impact people’s overall well-being physically and mentally?” According to the authors three themes emerged from the open-ended responses to the question: people will be more helped than harmed when it comes to well-being; potential harms; and remedies that can mitigate foreseeable problems. Each theme was then broken down into five or six sub-categories.

Although the findings cannot be adequately summed up here, a variety of opinions were reflected in the findings. Daniel Weitzner, principle research scientist and founding director or MIT’s Internet Policy Research Initiative said, “Human beings want and need connection, and the internet is the ultimate connection machine. Whether on questions of politics, community affairs, science, education, romance or economic life, the internet does connect people with meaningful and rewarding information and relationships. … I have to feel confident that we can continue to gain fulfillment from these human connections.”

However, connectedness may come at a price. That view was expressed by well-known technology expert Nicholas Carr who said, “We now have a substantial body of empirical and experiential evidence on the personal effects of the internet, social media and smartphones. The news is not good. While there are certainly people who benefit from connectedness – those who have suffered social or physical isolation in the past, for instance – the evidence makes clear that, in general, the kind of constant, intrusive connectedness that now characterizes people’s lives has harmful cognitive and emotional consequences. Among other things, the research reveals a strong association, and likely a causal one, between heavy phone and internet use and losses of analytical and problem-solving skill, memory formation, contextual thinking, conversational depth and empathy as well as increases in anxiety.”

To me, the findings were not all that surprising; many of the experts whose opinions were published have long espoused different opinions on the future of digital living. MIT professor Sherry Turkle (one of the experts in the sample), for example, has published widely on different aspects of living with technology. Her 2012 book (revised in 2017) “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” was a New York Times Best Seller. The report, however, is still a good read and it’s good to have ready access to differing views of technology experts in a single document. You can download the entire document using this link: “The Future of Well-Being in a Tech-Saturated World.”

–Jeffrey Maciejewski

Are Third Parties Misusing Facebook Data?

[Editor’s Note: Despite the byline this post was written by Creighton University Arts & Sciences student Elizabeth Fagerland.]

In the past week, Facebook has dealt with their stock plummeting and accusations of data misuse through a third party app used by Cambridge Analytica. It all started March 17 when a previous employee of Cambridge Analytica, Christopher Wylie, disclosed that the company gathered information from more than 50 million Facebook users. The firm is based in the United Kingdom; however, it has sparked controversy in the United States as well. The apparent intent of the data was to use it to personalize political ads on the social media platform. It is unclear when this data harvest began. Almost immediately, both British and US lawmakers wanted to know how this information was obtained without alerting Facebook users; several US senators called for Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, to testify before Congress.

Zuckerberg issued a long response on Facebook. He outlined the history of suspicious activity with the company that surfaced through various news sources, such as The Guardian and The New York Times. The relationship reportedly began in 2013 when Aleksandr Kogan developed a Facebook app that allowed Cambridge Analytica to collect personal information for a personality quiz from users and their friends, which they didn’t disclose. Facebook implemented stricter app data restrictions, requiring approval for apps to ask “sensitive” information. Facebook then asked and received confirmation that the company deleted the information they obtained from users.  After last week, Facebook actually banned Cambridge Analytica from using their services when they discovered Cambridge Analytica did not actually delete it. Zuckerberg outlined steps the company planned to take; but will these be enough? In addition to the Facebook post, Zuckerberg took out full-page ads as apologies (see above) in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and various UK papers.

To make matters worse, two days later Britain’s Channel 4 News reported they had an undercover video claiming Cambridge Analytica “secretly stage-managed” the Kenyan presidential campaigns in 2013 and 2017. The company denied these reports.  However, the next day, another undercover video surfaced showing Cambridge Analytica’s chief executive Alexander Nix “bragging about dirty political tactics” used in the 2016 election; he was suspended when the video was released. In reaction to this, the Federal Trade Commission began an investigation to determine whether Facebook breached data privacy.  With increasing fears of social media regulation, Facebook’s stocks plummeted 9 percent.

However, this is not the beginning of Facebook’s issues with data harvesting or third party users. They are also under fire for apparently saving years of data from Android users regarding their phone calls and texts.  Facebook responded to this, claiming the data was only scrubbed from users who use the Messenger or Facebook Lite apps.  According to Facebook, this data pull began when users allowed the applications access to their phone contacts, a feature that can be turned off by users.

There are a lot of articles and speculation surrounding this data breach currently.  As more information surfaces, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to sort through accusations, but there are some questions to consider.  How culpable is Facebook when third party users breach or obtain user data? Was there anything Facebook should have done differently? How should Cambridge Analytica be held accountable? How can large social media platforms like Facebook, regulate what user data is disclosed to third parties?