As It Happens

Why this Oxford researcher gave up his 'treasure trove' of Facebook data

Even though his colleagues pushed him to share the information, he resisted, saying "it wasn't my data."

Bernie Hogan didn't want to end up in the news, mired in scandal like Cambridge Analytica

Bernie Hogan is a senior research fellow at Oxford University. He said he once used an app to gather data on Facebook users and found himself with a 'treasure trove' of information. (Oxford University)

Bernie Hogan had access to Facebook data much like Cambridge Analytica, but when his colleagues asked him to share it, he said he refused.

"When people [were] saying my data is really great, I was like, 'I don't want to get written up by the Guardian or by another newspaper,'" Hogan, a senior research fellow at Oxford University, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

His reaction was nearly prophetic, it seems.

Lawmakers in the United States, Britain and Europe have called for investigations into media reports that political analytics firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested the private data on more than 50 million Facebook users without their consent to support Donald Trump's 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign.

Hogan collected Facebook data through an app, he said.

A similar method was used to gather the data supplied to Cambridge Analytica, which scraped information from a popular Facebook personality quiz. 

Hogan's app allowed users to "visualize" their social networks, he said.

"What I was doing was to help people educate themselves on what is a social network and how do they fit into the wider world," he said.

Rather than saving the data himself, he displayed it to the user.

He described the information he had access to as a "treasure trove."

But how his story differs from that of Cambridge Analytica's, Hogan said, was his intent.

"I wasn't trying to analyze [users] from behind the silver screen."

'Trading data'

Facebook users are not aware of how much of their data is being "traded" every day, Hogan said.

He said the social network is built around the idea of trading information for profit, usually to advertisers, which keeps it free to use.

"Trading data is the point of Facebook," he said. "That's literally what the site is for."

As a researcher, Hogan could access Facebook's "platform," offering information from any user who provides consent to an app he builds.

But that same service, he said, can be used by private companies and other groups in the same way.

Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Wednesday that Facebook has a 'responsibility' to protect its users' data and if it fails, 'we don't deserve to serve you.' (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on Friday that app developers will no longer have access to data from people who haven't used that app in three months.

Data will also be generally limited to user names, profile photos and email, unless the developper signs a contract with Facebook and gets user approval, he said. 

Facebook will also ban developers who don't agree to an audit.

Facebook's terms of service also states that data cannot be sold to third parties and must be deleted upon a user's request


Last year, Hogan deactivated his Facebook account. That left his data on the service in case he wanted to return.

More recently, he deleted his account completely.

"I am still on WhatsApp," he said of the messaging service owned by Facebook Inc.

"For some people, that's the only way I can reach them."

Hogan concedes that deleting a Facebook account isn't for every user, but for those who want to, he has advice.

Download your data and don't forget about friends who use only Facebook to communicate, he said.

If you regret your decision, you have a way back in.

"Facebook makes out like it's a big deal, but you can go back on the site with another email address," he said.

Ultimately, Hogan wants users to understand that it is OK to leave the network.

"Facebook are not a state. You're not a citizen of Facebook," he said.

"We shouldn't make it seem like it's a big deal because we shouldn't treat Facebook as it is central to our lives."

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Associated Press. Interview produced by Chris Harbord.


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