(Nov. 9, 2022) The Center for Information Technology Policy launched the Digital Witness Lab in November 2022. It is a one-of-a-kind research laboratory where journalism-trained engineers design software and hardware tools to track the inner workings of social media platforms, and use what they discover to help journalists expose how sites exploit users’ privacy and perpetuate the spread of misinformation and injustices globally.
The Digital Witness Lab aligns strongly with CITP’s mission to study and improve the impact digital technologies have on individuals and society. Based at CITP’s Sherrerd Hall office, the Lab is led by Surya Mattu, an award-winning data engineer and journalist whose project with the investigative journalism site, The Markup, produced Facebook Is Receiving Sensitive Medical Information from Hospital Websites, a story that revealed 33 hospital websites and seven health system patient portals were collecting patients’ sensitive patient data through Facebook’s Meta Pixel code.
Mattu’s work is two-pronged. First, he collaborates with journalists who investigate harms in digital technology, focusing on those working in India and Brazil, where misinformation campaigns have heavily influenced elections. Second, Mattu build tools to help those journalists capture data and document bad actors on platforms that manipulate user’s personal information.
Most journalists are not equipped to figure out how algorithms make decisions because that information is kept secret in proprietary software and apps, Mattu explains. But they can range from a Facebook post for housing that excludes people based on their demographic group, to an algorithm used to sort employment resumes where only one type of person passes the screening, he says. In the realm of criminal justice, it could be a risk assessment algorithm that penalizes Black defendants more than white defendants in sentencing.
The journalists are at a disadvantage because companies have no obligation to share that data, so it remains a mystery, says Mattu. “Injustice often lurks in the shadows of digital platforms.”
The Digital Witness Lab bypasses such obstacles by building custom software and hardware to capture data from these platforms. Journalists can then work with CITP researchers to report out the ways in which sites perpetuate biases and inequalities in society.
At CITP, Mattu is spearheading WhatsApp Watch — a research project in which Mattu will monitor groups in India and Brazil over time to detect attempts by bad actors to manipulate messaging around elections, media, or other sources of information.
Mattu pulled from prior projects to design the Digital Witness Lab. At ProPublica, he built a browser extension to collect data on how advertisers use Facebook’s behavioral ad targeting. That data collection campaign revealed Facebook’s use of “ethnic affinities” categories as a proxy for race. Through a crowdsourcing campaign, Mattu’s team was able to show how Facebook allowed digital redlining on its platform by making it possible for advertisers to exclude African-American users from receiving housing advertisements.
That project changed the way Facebook operates. In 2022, Facebook finally agreed to stop discriminatory advertising on the platform.
At The Markup, where Mattu was an investigative data journalist, he designed “Blacklight,” a real-time website privacy inspector that allows anyone to enter a website to receive a live scan of its tracking technologies. It also showed the user who is receiving the data.