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Business Professor Mines Lessons from Facebook Data Scandal

Manning School Assoc. Prof. Julie Zhang Focuses on Benefits of Data Analytics

Business professor Julie Zhang looks out her office window Photo by Ed Brennen
Assoc. Prof. Julie Zhang says that when it comes to mining Big Data for business intelligence, the good far outweighs the bad.

By Ed Brennen

The fallout has been swift ever since it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm hired by President Trump’s 2016 election campaign, gained access to the private information of 87 million Facebook users.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been called to testify before Congress. A #DeleteFacebook movement is trending online. Facebook’s stock, meanwhile, has plunged as the company scrambles to revamp its privacy tools and figure out how many other third-party apps misappropriated user data.

Julie Zhang, an associate professor of data analytics in the Manning School of Business, conducts research on data mining and social media analytics. Specifically, she studies how companies can use social media to support their decision-making and operate more efficiently. Her recent publications include “Voluntary Information Disclosure on Social Media” in the journal “Decision Support Systems.” 

A native of Lanzhou, China, Zhang joined the Manning School in 2012 and teaches graduate-level courses in social network analysis and business intelligence and data mining. In 2016, she received the Operations and Information Systems Department’s Teaching Excellence Award.

With privacy breaches becoming more common around the world – from Equifax to Anthem health insurance and Under Armour’s MyFitnessPal – Zhang shared her thoughts on what it all means for consumers in the age of Big Data.
Q: Are you surprised that Cambridge Analytica was able to gain access to the data of millions of Facebook users?

A: I’m not surprised at all. Data is just data. From my work on social media analytics, I know you can scrape all the tweets and Facebook messages. I have scraped messages for my research. The question is how they use the data. If they are using it to make society better, then it’s good. But if they’re using it to manipulate people’s opinions, then it’s not good. Data analysis tools themselves are good, not bad. I think most data analytics experts can do what Cambridge Analytica did. The tools are available. The data is available.
Julie Zhang sits at her office deskPhoto by Ed Brennen
Manning School Assoc. Prof. Julie Zhang teaches graduate-level courses in social network analysis and business intelligence and data mining.
Q: Do you think the Facebook scandal casts a shadow on the fields of data mining and data analytics? Will the public distrust those fields?

A: Data analytics and privacy are two separate issues. With data analytics, you drive insights from data. But people should have rights in terms of who should use their data. And if Cambridge Analytica was using their data without acknowledging it, then that’s the problem. Data analysis tools and techniques are providing many benefits to society. For example, they can help banks and credit card companies detect fraud. That’s a classic problem. When used in the right way, it gets positive results.

Q: When people share their information on free services like Facebook or Twitter, should they have an expectation of privacy? Or that their data won’t be monetized? 

A: Many people are willing to give up their privacy for convenience. It’s known as the “Privacy Paradox.” I think some people are OK that people know everything about them, but some people are not. But if you Google your name, you see so many things – your home address, your age, your family members. When the internet was built, it was just used to exchange information among a number of trusted people. But now we have billions of people accessing the internet. We should have more control about what data can be shared. We want to have access to more knowledge, but some things we don’t want to share.

Q: Should the government step in and provide regulation?

A: I think we do need to have strict regulation. When you look at Equifax, the consumer credit scoring agency, 140 million consumers had their data stolen. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed a bill that would fine these companies $100 for each consumer who had one piece of personal information stolen, and $50 for each additional time. But $100 for my data is not enough. The government can do more and apply stricter rules to these companies. And then you look at all this government data. When you buy a house, you need to apply for a mortgage and disclose all your sensitive financial information. The government holds our data. They should have more secure governance of our data. They can do more.

Q: How do you incorporate these data breach stories into your class?

A: I try to discuss these current topics and news items with students. They’re not as interested in the T.J.Maxx data breach from 10 years ago as compared to Facebook today. Students are very interested about that. I think students believe privacy is a big concern with data analytics. It’s about how far you can go. One student said, ‘Well, then, just quit using the internet.’ Which is impossible. You cannot. And even if you’re not using Facebook, there’s something else you’re using like Uber. They have your credit card information, and they had a data breach, too. And they know your location, which restaurants you like, everything.
Q: Finally, what drew you to the field of data analytics?

A: I’ve always liked playing with data. It’s kind of fun to see what insights you can find from all this data. When you just look at the numbers, you don’t see anything. But when you apply analytical tools to the data, you can discover patterns. You can discover things that can support managers in their decision-making.  In the past four or five years, everyone has been talking about Big Data. Every business wants to get something from data analytics. They want to have a business intelligence component in their business. They want to use the data for marketing, for better service. Some companies have done a very good job already using business intelligence to make their businesses better. Some companies are just learning.