It's not just about targeted ads. Your data plays a vital role in academic research

The Cambridge Analytica scandal left many Facebook users concerned about how their data is being used. But that same data can have great value for academic researchers.
Not all data mining is for advertisers: academic research benefits immensely from social media analyisis. (Pixabay)
Listen8:38

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, many social media users are questioning whether they should quit Facebook or other platforms as a way to protect the privacy of their personal data.

But there are some larger benefits to sharing data for academic research. In recent years, data from Twitter and Facebook have been used by scientists to inform important research in ways that, prior to social media, wouldn't have been possible. And most people would like that to continue.

There needs to be some way of making that information known to the public so that individuals can either opt in or opt out- Sandra Soo-Jin Lee

"It's really a treasure trove, frankly, for researchers that are interested in questions of social behavior," said Sandra Soo-Jin Lee, a Senior Research Scholar and an anthropologist at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics.

Balancing the need for user privacy and the larger good some of that data provides is a thorny question, she said. "We're really concerned about the ability of individuals to assert their autonomy," she added, "in terms of ensuring that when you sign up for research, you are informed of what the purpose of the activity is and to understand kind of the extent to which you will be participating in those activities."

Sandra Soo-Jin Lee, Senior Research Scholar and an anthropologist at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics (Stanford)

Lee said it's critically important that researchers are transparent about what their data may be used for.

This wasn't the case with Cambridge Analytica, where data was gathered ostensibly for academic research, but was then sold and used for more nefarious purposes. People who provided the data believed they were taking a simple personality quiz.

It's transparency about those "secondary" users that is especially important, she said, highlighting the need for full disclosure about how data, even if stripped of personal identifiers, might be used—or whether it's even possible to fully strip personally identifying information.

"Increasingly that's really a hard promise to make these days," Lee said.

She said researchers have to do a better job of explaining what the purpose of their research is so people can make informed consent.

There needs to be some way of making that information known to the public so that individuals can either opt in or opt out, she added.

"That is the first step, I think."

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