Facebook is building a tool to help researchers and governments track the spread of Covid-19 by giving users the ability to describe their symptoms and exposure. That's according to an op-ed piece in The Washington Post from the company's founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg.
Facebook says it has started showing users a survey inviting them to share their experience with symptoms related to Covid-19. The data collected is being used by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University to provide insight into how the outbreak is spreading.
According to Zuckerberg:
The survey asked people if they have symptoms such as fevers, coughing, shortness of breath or loss of smell that are associated with Covid-19. Since experiencing symptoms is a precursor to becoming more seriously ill, this survey can help forecast how many cases hospitals will see in the days ahead and provide an early indicator of where the outbreak is growing and where the curve is being successfully flattened. The survey responses are sent to the researchers and aren't accessible to Facebook.
On the one hand, that's good news. There are few platforms in the world with the scope and reach of Facebook; there's no doubt it could provide meaningful data about the spread of a pandemic. With more than 2.5 billion active users, Facebook has access to the number of people necessary to accurately figure out which communities have been hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak.
Of course, there's another hand, which is the reality that Facebook doesn't exactly have a stellar reputation when it comes to handling user data. That's a big deal when the data you're talking about is your personal exposure to a pandemic and the risk to your community.
It's difficult to trust Facebook considering its entire business model is to collect information about what you do online and then use that information to show you relevant ads based on your activity. There's also the fact that, on many occasions, Facebook has failed to protect that information. Instead, it made it possible for third-parties to access user information.
In some of those cases, the third-parties are developers Facebook allowed to scrape user information. In other cases, it was hackers or other bad actors who managed to gain access to large amounts of user data.
Contrast that with a company like Apple, which has long made privacy one of its core brand promises. Even still, Apple's efforts to aid the fight against Covid-19 have been met with concerns that the data involved in its contact tracing program could end up in the hands that users never intended.
I've been critical of Zuckerberg and Facebook on many occasions for everything from how the company treats user information to the fact that it seems to struggle to understand concerns why that matters. In this case, Facebook says it won't have access to the data. Whether that's true or not, you'd be forgiven for being a bit skeptical about a company that literally makes billions of dollars monetizing its users' personal information.
The reality is we're going to need tech companies like Facebook to help effectively reverse the direction of this pandemic. This latest move by Facebook is a good step in that direction and is an example to every business.
Here's the lesson, by the way: Even if Facebook is doing everything right, it has a very real trust deficit with users. The only way out of that is to do the right thing for the right reason every time. Let's hope this is a start.