Navigating Facebook’s Ocean of Personal Data

Technology Review, an excellent journal published by MIT, has an article in its July/August 2012 edition examining Facebook’s growing use of the social sciences to analyze user behavior.  Technology Review editor Tom Simonite writes:

Now that the company has gone public, the pressure to develop new sources of profit  is likely to force it to do more with its hoard of information. That stash of data looms like an oversize shadow over what today is a modest online advertising business, worrying privacy-conscious Web users …  and rivals such as Google. Everyone has a feeling that this unprecedented resource will yield something big, but nobody knows quite what.

A group of dedicated researchers within the company, which Simonite describes as “a kind of Bell Labs for the social-networking age,” is hard at work unraveling the mysteries (and opportunities) presented by the data.

They apply math, programming skills, and social science to mine our data for insights that they hope will advance Facebook’s business and social science at large. Whereas other analysts at the company focus on information related to specific online activities, Marlow’s team can swim in practically the entire ocean of personal data that Facebook maintains. Of all the people at Facebook, perhaps even including the company’s leaders, these researchers have the best chance of discovering what can really be learned when so much personal information is compiled in one place.

The article is a fascinating peek into the inner workings of the world’s largest social network, but it’s also a reminder of how important it is for lawyers to think seriously about the implications of our increasingly connected and data-driven society.

Lawyers should think about the data they put online, particularly with free services.  To paraphrase a popular quote that has circulated regarding social media, if you aren’t paying for a service, you are the product being sold.  Companies that hold your information are under pressure to monetize it, and you may not be comfortable with the results.

But lawyers should also consider the broader professional implications of this growing “ocean of personal data,” as the article describes it.  What potentially relevant data do your clients have in Facebook and other similar services? What data might opposing parties or witnesses have?  Can you access and/or preserve that data ethically, and if so, how? Do you need to preserve your firm’s data and/or your clients’ data, and again, how?

As the world of social networking matures from collecting data to using data, these will be among the many questions that lawyers must confront.

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