December 9, 2022

Princeton CITP Launches the Digital Witness Lab to Help Journalists Track Bad Actors on Platforms

Read the full announcement and Q & A with Investigative Data Journalist and Engineer, Surya Mattu.

Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP) is excited to announce the launch of the Digital Witness Lab — an innovative research laboratory where engineers will design software and hardware tools to track the inner workings of social media platforms, and help journalists expose how they exploit users’ privacy and aid in the spread of misinformation and injustices globally.

Based at CITP’s Sherrerd Hall office, the Lab is led by Surya Mattu, an award-winning data engineer and journalist whose most recent project with The Markup resulted in “Facebook Is Receiving Sensitive Medical Information from Hospital Websites,” an investigative news story that revealed 33 hospital websites and seven health system patient portals were collecting patients’ sensitive patient data through Facebook’s Meta Pixel code.

“In our digital world, injustice often lurks in the shadows of digital platforms,” Mattu said. “This could be a Facebook post for housing that excludes people based on their demographic group. It could be an algorithm used to sort employment resumes where only one type of person passes the screening. In criminal justice, it could be a risk assessment algorithm that penalizes black defendants more than white defendants in criminal sentencing.

“Algorithmic decisions in systems like these take place in proprietary software and apps,” he explained. “To bypass this barrier, the lab builds custom software and hardware to capture data from these platforms.”

Mattu’s first undertaking at CITP is WhatsApp Watch — a research project in which engineers will monitor public WhatsApp groups to document the spread of misinformation.

“We are excited to welcome Surya into the Princeton CITP community,” said Tithi Chattopadhyay, the Center’s executive director. “We look forward to building relationships with journalists and newsrooms that don’t have access to the types of digital tools Surya has a record of developing to support the critical work of investigative reporters. We are excited about the real world impact his work will have.”

The Center for Information Technology Policy is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, interdisciplinary hub where researchers study the impact of digital technologies on society with the mission of informing policymakers, journalists, researchers, and the public for the good of society. CITP’s research priorities are Platforms & Digital Infrastructure, Privacy & Security, and Data Science, AI & Society.

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