Facebook’s Ex-Security Chief Details His ‘Observatory’ for Internet Abuse

Andy Greenberg, writing for Wired: When Alex Stamos describes the challenge of studying the worst problems of mass-scale bad behavior on the internet, he compares it to astronomy. To chart the cosmos, astronomers don’t build their own Hubble telescopes or Arecibo observatories. They concentrate their resources in a few well-situated places and share time on expensive hardware. But when it comes to tackling internet abuse ranging from extremism to disinformation to child exploitation, Stamos argues, Silicon Valley companies and academics are still trying to build their own telescopes. What if, instead, they shared their tools — and more importantly, the massive data sets they’ve assembled?

That’s the idea behind the Stanford Internet Observatory, part of the Stanford Cyber Policy Center where Stamos is a visiting professor. Founded with a $5 million donation from Craigslist creator Craig Newmark, the Internet Observatory aspires to be a central outlet for the study of all manner of internet abuse, assembling for visiting researchers the necessary machine learning tools, big data analysts, and perhaps most importantly, access to major tech platforms’ user data — a key to the project that may hinge on which tech firms cooperate and to what degree.

“Misinformation is not just a computer science problem. It’s a problem that brings in political science, sociology, psychology,” Stamos says. “Part of the idea of the Internet Observatory is to build a place for these people to work together, and we want to build the infrastructure necessary to allow all the different parts of the political and social sciences to study what’s happening online.” Stamos says the observatory is currently negotiating with tech firms — he names Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit as examples — that it hopes will offer access to user data via API in real time and in historical archives. The observatory will then share that access with social scientists who might have a specific research project but lack the connections or resources to grapple with the immensity of the data involved.