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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.

That said, there's no doubt that Facebook could easily identify and prevent raves like the one that nearly killed me. Just flag the number of people sent to a certain address and check that address against the addresses of the folks promoting the party. Facebook has turned many legitimate parties into disasters thanks to teens oversharing the party's invitation; the home of a friend was nearly destroyed by such an event.

Facebook - or any other social network, for that matter - could notify the user that a party may get out of hand and help him or her eliminate the problem before property damage or violence occurs. This doesn't mean the company won't get sued - Facebook does get sued - but it's difficult to win a suit if you can't prove some kind of direct action.

Facebook's Tactical Thinking on Data Mining May Backfire
It's only a matter of time before someone figures out how to hold Facebook and other services liable for crimes committed using social media. (Murders have been planned on Facebook. Some have been stopped, albeit by alert users, but others have not.) What makes the difference today: Analytics make it increasingly easy to showcase that a company knew something bad was about to happen but did nothing with that information.

Now, in many jurisdictions you're not legally obligated to report a crime, but if your service is used in a crime and you benefit from it -- through, say, advertising revenue - I believe there's a good argument to be made to connect the company to it. I expect it will take some time, perhaps years, to establish case law around this, but, once case law is established, social media sites could be held liable.

In the end, though, this all pales in comparison to the idea that a mass killing, suicide, murder or destructive crime (like an illegal rave) could be prevented, or a child in danger saved. Maybe the better path is accepting the risk and preventing the crime. As I recently discovered, that life saved might be yours, or that of someone you care for.

I think Facebook is thinking tactically and should be playing the long game. This may come back to haunt the company. If you worked for Facebook, or another social media site, and you knew that data mining could save lives and property, but could cost you customers and open your company to liability from those you failed to save previously, what would you do?


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