NEW DELHI: Social media giant Facebook on Wednesday blocked accounts related to a group of researchers working with the New York University project that analyzes political ads on its platform. The project, called NYU Ad Observatory, was launched last September and had over 6,500 volunteers using a browser extension to collect data on political ads.

“In violation of our Terms of Use, NYU’s Ad Observatory project investigated political ads by unauthorized means to access and collect data from Facebook. We have taken these steps to stop unauthorized scraping and protect people’s privacy in line with our privacy program under FTC regulation, “said Michael Clarke, Product Management Director at Facebook, in a blog post. Facebook also had last October Year tried to block this project year.

The NYU Ad Observatory is part of the Center for Cybersecurity at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering. “We use traditional cybersecurity methods to assess vulnerabilities in online platforms that are used to misinformation. Our focus is on systems that show how online sites are exposed to attacks with misinformation. We then develop defense strategies to improve online security and work with advocates, policymakers and platforms, ”the group claims on their website.

According to Clarkes Post, the browser extension the researchers developed was programmed to bypass their detection systems and collect data such as usernames, ads, links to user profiles, and information that Facebook provides through the “Why am I seeing this ad?” Button on its platform. “The extension also collected data about Facebook users who did not install it or who did not consent to its collection. The researchers previously archived this information in a publicly accessible database that is now offline, ”wrote Clarke.

However, the researchers refute Facebook’s claims. “In recent years we have used this access to uncover systemic errors in the Facebook advertising library, identify misinformation in political advertisements, including many that sow suspicion in our electoral system, and to investigate the apparent amplification of partisan misinformation by Facebook” said Laura Edelson, a graduate student at NYU Tandon School and a researcher on the project, wrote on Twitter.

“By blocking our accounts, Facebook effectively finished all of this work. Facebook has also effectively cut off access to more than two dozen other researchers and journalists who have access to Facebook data through our project, “she added.

Edelson’s statements on Twitter were retweeted over 1,500 times. The work of the Cybersecurity for Democracy project has been cited by publications such as The Washington Post, Wired, Politico and many others since its inception. Facebook stripped researchers from access to both its platform and tools like Crowdtangle, which provide insights into how ads work on Facebook.

“We offer researchers a range of privacy methods to collect and analyze data. We welcome research that holds us accountable that does not compromise the security of our platform or user privacy, “Clarke said in the post.

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