Facebook has stressed it is not collecting or sharing personal or location data of its users with partners like academics, researchers and humanitarian professionals to deal with global crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic.
The social networking giant said it has created a differential privacy framework that protects the privacy of individuals in aggregated datasets by ensuring no one can identify specific people in these datasets.
In 2017, the company launched ‘Data for Good’ with the goal of empowering partners with data to help make progress on major social issues.
Over the past few months, public health researchers have used data sets released by Facebook to inform decisions around Covid-19 across Asia, Europe and North America.
“Data for Good simply aggregates data we collect from our apps and shares it in a de-identified way to help researchers, academics and others address humanitarian crises and social issues,” Facebook said in a statement.
The new framework makes new datasets available publicly to help inform the public sector response to humanitarian crises like the Covid-19 pandemic.
Facebook said the research partners enrolled in the ‘Data for Good’ programme only have access to aggregate information from Facebook and it does not share any individual information.
Some datasets are being shared publicly, but these are formatted to help prevent re-identification.
“For example, datasets that include location information are aggregated in a way that protects the privacy of individuals by using techniques like spatial smoothing to create weighted averages and avoid using map tiles where very few people live,” informed Facebook.
For public datasets on mobility, Facebook said it adds a random number of additional observations to each map area to ensure no one can re-identify users.
Users can decide if they want to share location data.
“You can choose whether you want to share that information in the Location History setting. You can also choose whether you want to participate in surveys, like our research partners’ symptom survey,” said Facebook.
The company stressed it does not collect any additional data for ‘Data for Good’ like for advertisers.
“Some data used in ‘Data for Good’ is the same data that we use to personalize your experience on our apps and show you more relevant content and ads,” said the company.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in April that if we use data responsibly, it can help the world respond to the ongoing health crisis and get us started on the road to recovery from Covid-19.
“Data like this can unlock a lot of good. Since we’re all generating data from apps and devices every day, there will likely be many more opportunities to use the aggregate data to benefit public health. But it’s essential that this is done in a way that protects people”s privacy and respects human rights,” said Zuckerberg.