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Facebook Disables Accounts Of NYU Research Project It Claims Violated User Privacy

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Ailan Evans Tech Reporter
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Facebook disabled the accounts of New York University’s Ad Observatory Project on Tuesday, claiming the project violated its terms of service.

The Ad Observatory Project, launched by New York University’s Center for Cybersecurity, is a research effort studying online political misinformation by recruiting volunteers to use a browser extension that collects and analyzes data on political ads shown to them on Facebook, according to the project’s website.

Facebook announced Tuesday it had disabled the project’s accounts, alleging researchers had used unauthorized means to collect data that violated user privacy.

“The researchers gathered data by creating a browser extension that was programmed to evade our detection systems and scrape data such as usernames, ads, links to user profiles and ‘Why am I seeing this ad?’ information, some of which is not publicly-viewable on Facebook,” Mike Clark, product management director at Facebook, said in a statement titled “Research Cannot Be the Justification for Compromising People’s Privacy.”

Facebook also alleged researchers collected data on users who did not install the browser extension. However, the researchers claimed the “users” in question were advertisers, and no information was collected that was not already made public. (RELATED: Facebook Executive Blasts White House, Claims Biden Uses Platform As ‘Scapegoat’ For Vaccine Hesitancy)

“Facebook should not be able to cynically invoke user privacy to shut down research that puts them in an unflattering light, particularly when the ‘users’ Facebook is talking about are advertisers who have consented to making their ads public,” associate professor Damon McCoy, one of the NYU researchers, told Protocol.

The company had repeatedly warned the researchers their browser extension was not in compliance with the company’s terms of service, Clark said. Facebook had offered researchers the use of a data set on election ads and its Ad Library, a collection of all ads currently running on the platform, which they declined according to the statement.

Facebook explicitly bans the use of “scrapers,” or automated data collection software, in its terms of service. The company said the practice jeopardizes user privacy.

“The researchers knowingly violated our Terms against scraping — which we went to great lengths to explain to them over the past year,” Clark said.

Another researcher, doctoral candidate Laura Edelson, protested Facebook’s decision in a statement on her Twitter account.

“Over the last several years, we’ve used this access to uncover systemic flaws in the Facebook Ad Library, identify misinformation in political ads including many sowing distrust in our election system, and to study Facebook’s apparent amplification of partisan misinformation,” Edelson wrote.

“The work our team does to make data about disinformation on Facebook transparent is vital to a healthy internet and a healthy democracy,” she added.

Facebook did not immediately respond to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for additional comment.

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