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Facebook, the NSA and the screwy ethics of corporate analytics

Rob Enderle | Nov. 4, 2013 columnist Rob Enderle suffered a brutal beating after police broke up an illegal rave next door to his house. The rave attracted hundreds of teens who saw the party invite on Facebook. The incident left Enderle to wonder why Facebook, other social sites and even government agencies are so reluctant to use their data to prevent bad things from happening.

Analytics is a very powerful tool. With it, you can determine market trends or potentially prevent the next terrorist attack. But this same tool could prevent mass shootings, suicides and a broad variety of crimes.

This last occurred to me while I was recovering from nearly being kicked to death by three older teens who showed up after police shut down a massive, illegal rave in the house next door. Facebook knew about this rave, but only after the damage had been done was the Facebook connection made.

NSA, meanwhile, knows about crimes - but the agency appears to be selectively sharing information with law enforcement as part of anti-drug efforts or to punish criminals, not as part of an effort to prevent violent crime. I don't know about you, but not being killed ranks higher on my list of priorities than catching a drug dealer.

Facebook could proactively protect homes and lives, particularly those of children. The NSA collects information from Google and Yahoo at will, and this could be used to prevent crimes. (Just don't try to get your files back.) Why isn't this happening?

The NSA is a mess at the moment, dominated by politics and bureaucrats. But Facebook chooses not to help. This hits the core of the screwy ethics of analytics.

Economics of Data Mining Make Information Disclosure a Hard Sell
Facebook was created as a place for people to share information. Teens in particular don't like the idea that their stuff is being monitored, but they're willing to turn a blind eye to this activity, since it primarily focuses on mining advertising dollars. Should Facebook actively step in and become known the company that reports teens behaving badly to law enforcement or, worse, their parents, kids will flee the service in large numbers. Based on comments at Facebook's latest quarterly financial report, this is already happening.

One could conclude, then, that Facebook is economically motivated not to proactively prevent crimes against adults and children. Such behavior goes beyond apathy and is exacerbated by reports that the NSA and FBI mine data from companies such as Facebook.

If you can knowingly do something, anything, to prevent a crime, you can be held liable if you don't do it. In our litigation-rich environment, juries rule against large companies regardless of actual fault. A company such as Facebook is therefore indemnified if it can get people to believe there was nothing it reasonably could have done.

Facebook executives do care about this. Don't get me wrong. But analytics isn't perfect, and a public company using analytics to prevent a crime is largely unproven. You can't blame Facebook for fearing that saving one child but failing to save another will still leave the company partially liable.


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