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Expert: Don’t Let Facebook Scandal Tarnish Data Mining

Apr 15, 2018 06:42AM ● By Theresa Gilman

Dr. Julie Zhang

(Editor's Note: the following information was provided by UMass Lowell.)

UMass Lowell’s Julie Zhang, who is an expert on social media analytics and data mining, is available for interviews about the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Congress and consumers are notified about how their data may have been used.
The fallout has been swift since the public learned Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm hired by President Trump’s 2016 election campaign, gained access to the private information of 87 million Facebook users. The #DeleteFacebook movement is trending. Facebook’s stock has plunged as the company scrambles to revamp its privacy tools and figure out how many other third-party apps misappropriated user data.
But Zhang says Facebook’s breach shouldn’t overshadow the positives that can come from data analysis. A professor in UMass Lowell’s Manning School of Business, she studies how companies can use social media to support their decision-making and operate more efficiently. Zhang teaches courses in social network analysis, business intelligence and data mining.
Here are some of her thoughts on the Facebook scandal:
Q. Are you surprised that Cambridge Analytica was able to gain access to the data of millions of Facebook users?
I’m not surprised at all. Data is just data. From my work on social media analytics, I know you can scrape all the tweets and Facebook messages. I have scraped messages for my research. The question is how they use the data. If they are using it to make society better, then it’s good. But if they’re using it to manipulate people’s opinions, then it’s not good. Data analytical tools themselves are good, not bad. I think most data analytics experts can do what Cambridge Analytica did. The tools are available. The data are available.
Q. Do you think the Facebook scandal casts a shadow on the fields of data mining and data analytics? Will the public distrust those fields?
Data analytics and privacy are two separate issues. With data analytics, you derive insights from data. But people should have rights in terms of who should use their data. And if Cambridge Analytica was using their data without acknowledging it, then that’s the problem. Data analytical tools and techniques are providing many benefits to society. For example, data analytical tools can help banks and credit card companies detect fraud. That’s a classic problem. When used in the right way, it gets positive results.
Q. When people share their information on free services like Facebook or Twitter, should they have an expectation of privacy? Or that their data won’t be monetized? 
Many people are willing to give up their privacy for convenience. It’s known as the “Privacy Paradox.” I think some people are OK that people know everything about them, but some people are not. But if you google your name, you see so many things – your home address, your age, your family members.
When the internet was built, it was just used to exchange information among a number of trusted people. But now we have billions of people accessing the internet. We should have more control about what data can be shared. We want to have access to more knowledge, but some things we don’t want to share.
Q. Should the government step in and provide regulation?
I think we do need to have strict regulation. When you look at Equifax, the consumer credit scoring agency, 100 million consumers had their data stolen. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed a bill that would fine these companies $100 for each consumer who had one piece of personal information stolen, and $50 for each additional time. But $100 for my data is not enough. The government can do more and apply stricter rules on these companies.
And then you look at all this government data. When you buy a house, you need to apply for a mortgage and disclose all your sensitive financial information. The government holds our data. They should have more secure governance of our data. They can do more.
Q. How do you incorporate these data breach stories into your class?
I think students believe privacy is a big concern with data analytics. It’s about how far you can go. One student said, ‘Well, then just quit using the internet.’ Which is impossible. You cannot. And even if you’re not using Facebook, there’s something else you’re using, like Uber. They have your credit card information, and they had a data breach, too. And they know your location, which restaurants you like, everything.
Q. What drew you to the field of data analytics?
I’ve always liked playing with data. It’s kind of fun to see what insights you can find from all this data. When you just look at the numbers, you don’t see anything. But when you apply analytical tools to the data, you can discover patterns. You can discover things that can support managers in their decision-making.
In the past four or five years, everyone has been talking about Big Data. Every business wants to get something from data analytics. They want to have a business intelligence component in their business. They want to use the data for marketing, for better service. Some companies have done a very good job already using business intelligence to make their businesses better. Some companies are just learning.
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