Last time Facebook shared user data with academics, the results ended up becoming a disaster for personal privacy - and cost the company $5 billion in FTC fines, as well as untold reputational damage.
But Facebook's insights, based on 2.6 billion monthly active users, can be highly valuable for research purposes, and Facebook wants to be able to contribute to relevant research and studies where it can, while ensuring that personal information isn't disclosed, and can't be utilized for alternate purpose.
Which is why Facebook has come up with a new 'differential privacy (DP) framework', which will enable it to share data with academics, and in public, without the risk of revealing personal insight.
As explained by Facebook:
"Differential privacy minimizes risk of reidentification of individual data with the help of possible additional information - even information we cannot anticipate now. Applying a DP framework takes into account the sensitivity of the data set and adds noise proportionally to ensure with high probability that no one can reidentify users."
In essence, the new DP framework enables Facebook to provide broad datasets, which can help to identify trends and shifts, without infringing on user privacy by linking it back to any personally-specific information.
No matter how it's framed, of course, it's still going to sound risky, given Facebook's track record on such matters. But matched against the potential use cases, it also could be highly valuable, in a range of ways.
For example, Facebook recently released a range of public datasets which detail citizen movements in various regions, in order to help medical teams and researchers develop strategic plans to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Earlier in the year, Facebook also provided 'displacement maps' to help recovery teams assist those impacted by the Australian bushfires.
That data is based on location tracking detail within the Facebook app, which most users have switched on, enabling Facebook to provide broad scope insights, like this, which can assist in relevant planning.
Facebook's COVID-19 movement maps are publicly available for 14 countries, with the new DP framework implemented to protect user information. That means that Facebook can provide valuable insight, without the risk of such insight being misused - though Facebook does also note that anybody can opt-out of information sharing at any time.
But as noted, there is significant value in making this information available.
Location tracking always comes with a level of risk - and we've seen that again this week, with US authorities using location tracking info enabled for COVID-19 mitigation efforts to monitor the movements of #BlackLivesMatter protestors.
There are always related privacy considerations to keep in mind, but Facebook believes that its new DP framework will provide adequate protection, and ensure that people cannot be individually linked back to broader, public data sets.