Cornell Tech’s Digital Life Initiative (DLI) recently hosted a Roosevelt Island Community Conversation. These events are public forums where Cornell Tech faculty and researchers are open to discuss what they are currently working on and how it is making an impact on our lives.

The DLI is comprised of researchers whose focus is on the ethics, policy, politics, and quality of life in emerging digital technologies. This conversation’s panel was moderated by DLI Visiting Fellow MC Forelle, and panelists included Professor and DLI Director Helen Nissenbaum, DLI Research Fellow Lee McGuigan, and DLI Visiting Fellows Noa Mor and Yaël Eisenstat.

Below are some of the questions the DLI panel discussed concerning privacy, social media, behavioral advertising, and media manipulation.

Why has online political advertising been discussed so frequently in the news?

Nissenbaum explained that the underlying issue is that of companies harvesting viewers’ data to create individual profiles — based on things such as gender, age, race, income, and personal interests — before showing them ads. “The political messages that you’re getting that are personalized to you in a way that actually can be quite manipulative.”

McGuigan continued, explaining how this has an effect on today’s political climate. “Not only do different people not see the same ads, but it might be that no one ever has any awareness of an ad that’s shown to just a very small group of people. So, you get political advertisements that can be more dishonest, more outrageous — in a way that if you saw them on broadcast television… people would be outraged.”

Eisenstat echoed McGuigan’s statement, stating, “If we allow unchecked lying in political advertising to be hyper-targeted to us, there is no way that’s an even playing field for what democracy needs in order to thrive.”

Are there any organizations that can help with the regulation of data tracking?

Nissenbaum began by focusing on the large-scale. She explained that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been formed to address the issues that have been cropping up surrounding data tracking on the web. “At the global level, there are treaties and so forth and a lot of this cross-national discussion is happening in Europe.”

Eisenstat narrowed the issue down into something more actionable for the audience. She advised reaching out to legislators and asking them how they plan to tackle these issues in a way that serves our best interests. “It’s not up to every citizen to have a proposal on what legislation should look like, but it is up to us to say ‘we want this from our government.’”

Mor reinforced Eisenstat’s advice, stating, “We just have to insist on being in this circle of decision-making.”

How can I protect my personal data from being used?

McGuigan gave quite practical advice: check your app permissions settings. “Every app you have probably has default access to your microphone, to your pictures, to your address book, to your location. Go into the settings on your phone and the settings on individual apps and see what permissions are allowed… That’s a great way to stop the absolute pervasive tracking by companies that have no damn business knowing where you go or who your friends are.”

Eisenstat followed up with a warning: never trust a free site not to use your data or be manipulative in some way — especially free news sites. “It’s great that everything’s free. But at the end of the day, if we want to combat some of this, we have to think through — are we willing to pay for journalism?”

Nissenbaum concluded, “One of the most important ways we should protect ourselves against some of what’s going on is precisely what we’re doing today; which is having people become more engaged, more knowledgeable.”