A couple of years ago, Vladan Joler and his brainy friends in Belgrade began investigating the inner workings of one of the world’s most powerful corporations – Facebook.
The team, which includes experts in cyber-forensic analysis and data visualisation, had already looked into what he calls “different forms of invisible infrastructures” behind Serbia’s internet service providers.
But Mr Joler and his friends, now working under a project called Share Lab, had their sights set on a bigger target.
“If Facebook were a country, it would be bigger than China,” says Mr Joler, whose day job is as a professor at Serbia’s Novi Sad University.
He reels off the familiar, but still staggering, numbers: the barely teenage Silicon Valley firm stores some 300 petabytes of data, boasts almost two billion users, and raked in almost $28bn (£22bn) in revenues in 2016 alone.
And yet, Mr Joler argues, we know next to nothing about what goes on under the bonnet – despite the fact that we, as users, are providing most of the fuel – for free.
“All of us, when we are uploading something, when we are tagging people, when we are commenting, we are basically working for Facebook,” he says.
The data our interactions provide feeds the complex algorithms that power the social media site, where, as Mr Joler puts it, our behaviour is transformed into a product.
Trying to untangle that largely hidden process proved to be a mammoth task.
“We tried to map all the inputs, the fields in which we interact with Facebook, and the outcome,” he says.
“We mapped likes, shares, search, update status, adding photos, friends, names, everything our devices are saying about us, all the permissions we are giving to Facebook via apps, such as phone status, wifi connection and the ability to record audio.”
All of this research provided only a fraction of the full picture. So the team looked into Facebook’s acquisitions, and scoured its myriad patent filings.
The results were astonishing.
Visually arresting flow charts that take hours to absorb fully, but which show how the data we give Facebook is used to calculate our ethnic affinity (Facebook’s term), sexual orientation, political affiliation, social class, travel schedule and much more.
Mr Joler, though, while admitting that his research made him a little paranoid about the information that was being harvested, is more worried about the longer term.
The data will remain in the hands of one company. Even if its current leaders are responsible and trustworthy, what about those in charge in 20 years?
Analysts say Share Lab’s work is valuable and impressive. “It’s probably the most comprehensive work mapping Facebook that I’ve ever seen,” says Dr Julia Powles, an expert in technology law and policy at Cornell Tech.
Facebook, argues Dr Powles, “plays to our base psychological impulses” by valuing popularity above all else.
(Blic, BBC, 26.05.2017)
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