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Facebook’s Zuckerberg touts users’ data as ‘superpower’ as Covid-19 symptom survey set to roll out worldwide

Facebook’s Zuckerberg touts users’ data as ‘superpower’ as Covid-19 symptom survey set to roll out worldwide
A Facebook survey allowing US users to self-report coronavirus symptoms (and reveal their own ‘presumed’ infection to the platform) is expanding globally, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg touts the data as a “new superpower.”

The social media giant’s symptom-checker tool, developed with Carnegie Mellon University, released its first set of data on US users on Monday, reaffirming what healthcare professionals treating its victims already know about the coronavirus – it appears to cluster in high-density, urban counties, and is vanishingly rare in rural regions. What the survey lacks in scientific accuracy, it will soon make up in global reach, as the tool is expanding worldwide on Wednesday.

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Zuckerberg touted the data, harvested with respect for users’ privacy and human rights, he insisted, as humanity’s “new superpower” in a Washington Post op-ed published to coincide with the data release. The social media magnate claimed that the self-reported information collected from the survey will “get us started on the road to recovery.

Mindful of the platform’s highly-publicized missteps with regard to user data, Zuckerberg was careful to point out that the fight against coronavirus “shouldn’t mean sacrificing our privacy.” But while the Carnegie-Mellon tool claims it does not share any information back to Facebook about what symptoms users report, the mere act of clicking on the tool tells the platform that a person has symptoms – a data point that could mark them for closer monitoring, given reports of potential tracking collaboration between Facebook and Washington.

Privacy concerns aside, the tool – rolled out earlier this month – also leaves out much of the population most at risk from coronavirus: the elderly, who are underrepresented on social media. Municipalities attempting to make policy on the basis of Facebook’s data (which is one of Zuckerberg’s professed intentions) might overlook information about this vital group.

While the university researchers initially claimed they would roll the survey out internationally only “if the results are helpful,” it’s not clear how useful these self-reported symptoms will be. Coronavirus shares symptoms with multiple respiratory conditions and other ailments, and while the US Centers for Disease Control has ordered doctors to cite the virus as cause of death in all “presumed” coronavirus deaths without a test, this is not the way medicine or epidemiology is traditionally conducted – especially when there are tests available for the virus. If every “dry cough” and shortness of breath is reported as a coronavirus case, the numbers are likely to be wildly inflated and could lead to overly-cautious policymaking, or even panic.

Accuracy, however, may not be the point. Zuckerberg revealed to the Verge that the purpose of making the survey global was overcoming certain governments’ resistance to reporting cases.

Some of these governments, frankly, are not excited about the world knowing how many actual cases there might be, or how it’s spreading in their countries. Getting that data out there is very important.

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While Facebook has insisted it does not plan to “interpret” the data researchers are gleaning from its platform, it has partnered with New York University and Cornell University to do just that using machine learning (artificial intelligence).

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