Facebook is now sharing the data of American users with a team of researchers led by Stanford economist Raj Chetty, who are aiming to find out more about economic inequality in the United States. According to estimates, about three-fifths of American adults use Facebook, so the researchers hope they can better explain how one percent of the population holds 40 percent of the country’s wealth.
While the study certainly seems like a better use of user data than targeting ads, privacy concerns are still raised. According to a source close to Chetty’s study, the data that is used has been stripped of any details that could be used to identify users, and that those involved with the study had to undergo background checks. Additionally, user data can only be accessed from “secure facilities”.
While the exact aim of the study is not entirely clear, Cecilia Muñoz, who led the Domestic Policy Council in the Obama White House, believes such studies are huge. She said:
“For a policy nerd like me, being able to see that quantifiable evidence about things lots of us have been debating in theory for a long time is absolutely huge. The notion that you can use data about people’s social interactions and begin to piece together, ‘OK, what is social isolation costing us?’ is a whole other ballgame.”
One of the reasons that Facebook may be allowing Chetty and his researchers access to the data is because of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s growing interest in economic mobility. Last July, Zuckerberg made a Facebook post highlighting the benefits of Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend, a sort of basic income programme. In that post he said:
“Alaska’s economy has historically created this winning mentality, which has led to this basic income. That may be a lesson for the rest of the country as well.”
Despite the privacy concerns that come with Facebook's willingness to share user data, it’ll still be interesting to find out the results of the study, which is based on such a wealth of data.