Hang Do Thi Duc is a Mozilla Fellow in Media and the creator of Data Selfie. She is a Fulbright scholar and graduate of Parsons MFA in Design and Technology program. The following is a conversation between Hang and Mozilla’s Commissioning Editor for Advocacy Media, Brett Gaylor, at the Refiguring the Future event in Chicago, May 2018.
- Hang’s website
- @hangdothiduc on Twitter
- Data Selfie
- ”We’re Watching Back” — blog post from the Stories of Surveillance workshop at MIT
- Public By Default – Hang’s investigation into a year of Venmo data
Can you tell me a bit about your work, starting with a review of what you do and then try to anchor that in a specific example of the project that you’re doing with Mozilla?
I think what ties my projects together is an interest in the relationship between media and society, specifically the influence that media has on society. I remember in high school in history class- in Germany you address the topic of nationalism, the Nazi time, a lot. A lot of Hitler’s tactics were about manipulation and propaganda.
This is how I was exposed to the idea of how influential the media could be.
The media plays a much larger role in our everyday life than it used to. There’s a good chance that at any point in the day you are interacting with media in some way.
Exactly, exactly. I think maybe I’ll give an example, how I got into my current project and my biggest project so far, which is Data Selfie, it started out by me being curious about my media consumption on Facebook. I was investigating what I can learn about myself by analyzing what kind of content I consume and what I’m interacting with all day, every day.
As I researched and explored more I realized, “Oh, there are actually some serious privacy concerns there when you analyze what kind of data is tracked and collected to serve you this kind of media.”
What’s the intended impact of a project like that? What is its utility?
With Data Selfie, my main goal was to surface that we should have a relationship with the data that we leave behind every day — data that maybe at first glance you don’t realize you’re leaving behind.
When you scroll through your feed in Facebook, it doesn’t seem like you’re doing much, but by scrolling through, you pay attention to some things, and some others you don’t. That can be…
That’s a signal.
Yeah, that’s a signal. Exactly. That can be very interesting to Facebook, especially. Anything you do is a signal.
The impact is that you want people to be aware of the fact. Is it mostly awareness?
Mostly awareness, just making up your mind, if that’s worth it for you. For me, it wasn’t really worth it. I realized, after doing the project, after heightening the feeling of being watched, I thought it wasn’t worth it to me. I didn’t delete my account, I just quit using it.
I don’t really want to tell people, “Hey, you should quit Facebook,” but just at least be aware of the trade off that you’re committing to.
If you think about that work, can you think of a specific anecdote, a time when you felt a sense of success?
It’s not so much that I wanted people to tell me, “Oh, I quit Facebook because of this project.” I think this project has had impact on the thought process or maybe even initializing the thought process. I’ve gotten random emails from people saying, “Oh, I’ve used it six months now and it opened up my eyes about what Facebook can collect about me.”
Also, the fact that this person has used it six months already, it doesn’t mean that they want to quit Facebook. They are at least aware of the choice that they made. Other people have told me that they are slowly moving away from Facebook because of this.
When I get emails from people that tell me that they use it for teaching, that they present it to students. That’s great too because that’s the media makers and tech people of the future.
That must be satisfying.
I would say the main goal is just initialize some thought process in people. It’s great that this little piece of software is able to do that for some people.
When creating Do Not Track we felt that it was our job to incite curiosity. It wasn’t that you wanted people to be angry, sad or burn the place down. You’re just like, “If I can get you to be curious about this thing that you’ve probably never even really thought of…”
Yes, I like this approach! It’s not in a form of an article that you have to read to learn about the data tracking practices of Facebook or anything like that. It’s just a different form. More playful.
More playful. This is saying, “If you want me to teach something, teach me something new.” If people have a chance of seeing something for themselves with their own data, do you think it’s more effective?
It will be more relatable. You maybe see some piece of information, even inferred information, that you’re thinking. “Oh, actually I don’t want Facebook to know that.” All these social media services and apps, not just Facebook are aiming for frictionless design, so you’re not really aware of what you’re actually giving away, what happens behind the curtain.
In general, it’s always this abstract discussion about data collection. What does it mean? What piece of data are we talking about? That’s the interesting part, too.
Following up on the success, how do you think that Data Selfie or, this year, the fellowship has contributed to the discourse around privacy? Have you felt like you’ve been in the public conversation around this issue?
I think so. It was February 2017 that Data Selfie was publicly available. Looking at the numbers, there are still about 80,000 people who have it still installed. It seems like they’re still interested in it.
If only half of those people talk with their friends or family about this thing that they’re using, then that’s already a pretty good impact. More than I could have imagined.
What about in the press and that aspect, as well? Because there’s some people that would probably read about Data Selfie that may not even use it.
Exactly. That’s also been a common reaction, where people are like, “Oh, this is a cool project, I just don’t use Facebook.” Those people, especially, I’ve also heard that they would then recommend it to their Facebook using friends. Media is super important for that. In the beginning, there was a lot of press attention, that also boosted it.
Together with Joanna and her project, we were featured in a pretty big Brazilian outlet. It’s good to have it also in the conversation in other parts of the world.
In the beginning, Data Selfie got a lot of coverage in the US, for example, and a little bit in Europe, too. But considering how high the Facebook consumption is in Latin American countries, it’s important to address the issues there, too. Or, like you said incite curiosity.
What do you think, for you, over the year has been thinking back to that success your biggest areas of personal growth?
Let’s see. I think I learned to talk more confidently about what the project is, what it’s intended to do, why it’s important.
Is that a function of it having 80,000 users and being in the press, or is it from colleagues? What do you think gives you that confidence?
I think it’s a lot from press, of course, but also just personal experiences from real and sometimes random people. The main thing is having people, real people, tell you “Oh, I like this,” and, “Thank you for creating this.” That’s satisfying and feels like I had an impact.
What about an example of a challenge in your work?
I think it probably relates to a lot of creative people — it’s never perfect, and it’s never ready to be pushed out. That’s one challenge. Connected to that, there was always something that you can improve. With software, that’s actually even worse, because there’s always a little bug here and there.
The challenge has been to sometimes just push it without thinking about it too much. If it works, and there are only some edge cases that have problems with it, go with it and fix it.
AKA, “Fuck it, ship it,” kind of?
Yeah. Things are changing so much in this social media world, anyway. I’m relying on the front end of Facebook. I’m not using a Facebook API, so it’s bound to break anyway. [laughs] I’m not saying don’t test anything at all. In this case, it makes sense to get it out there and have people use it. If it breaks then you fix it .
Switching gears, we’re now a few years or at least year into Mozilla framing the issue space as Internet health. What is a healthy Internet to you?
First of all, I think everybody should have access to the Internet. Then it would be really healthy. When everybody is online, and you have the true diversity of all voices.
In my area of work where I’m concerned with the privacy, a healthy Internet would be when you can use a service online without thinking that there might be other agendas of that service regarding your data.
Free of suspicion.
Yeah, free of suspicion, and also, you get what you expect. For the naïve it would be you get what you expect, and for the more critical, you don’t have to have these suspicious thoughts. I think that would be truly healthy Internet.
It’s not like that right now, I guess, at least not for me and you. What do you think that’s doing to the Internet and then more broadly society and culture, to have these suspicious feelings towards the Internet?
You never truly feel like you’re free online. You’re always limited in what you’re doing and always have concerns on your mind. You compromise being a social being because you value privacy. It limits how you behave every day.
Then do you think that your work pushes back against that? Is it your hope?
In general, I always think about change being either top down or a bottom up. I think it has to be done simultaneously. I know Mozilla is all about pressuring the big companies, but I think there also has to be just a basic understanding by everybody of how things work.
“What’s happening online? Am I OK with what’s happening online? What could be happening in the future with technology, with algorithms and so on?”
I think my work right now is more a bottom up approach. Give people a basic understanding of what’s happening so they can make up their mind.
Can you point to something that makes you feel optimistic for the future of the Internet as well? There’s a lot of cynicism right now, but are there areas where you see signs that are hopeful?
I feel like we have a lot of conversations. I think that’s a hopeful sign.
Where we have to be careful is having the right conversations. Having Facebook make changes to their policies gives you some hope — but what changes are they really making? Are these really the changes that would help in, for example, data collection or algorithmic prediction? Or are they just cosmetic changes to make us feel better?
If you compare it to the environment, climate change, our whole life that has been a discussion and yet we’re still hurtling towards irrevocable damage. Joanna and I were talking about that too. If you’re a climate activist, how do you wake up every day still wanting to work at that but knowing that all signs are pointing to failure?
That’s true. I think that’s a good analogy there because essentially some data is out there now. You can’t get it back anymore. It’s like some damage has been done already. It’s like toxic waste [laughs].
You define a healthy Internet as one where you weren’t suspicious. Are there other trends that you see that worries you about the Internet? I don’t know if you have the same background as I do of techno-utopianism.
What does that mean?
It was a belief that the Internet was emancipatory.
At its core, it was a tool that was going to, by and large, lead to improvements wherever it touched. That was the feeling based in the early 2000s. Some folks have lost that belief. Are there trends that you see that make you worry that it’s headed in the wrong direction?
I can’t think of anything right now. That’s the thing, the Internet, it seems all encompassing. It’s so hard to just actually say it’s one place anymore, because it’s everywhere.
You’re right, it’s harder to say this is the Internet as distinct from conversation that we have on television or in the newspapers, because the Internet consumes those things. Still, if you were to think about the election interference or maybe the rise of more misogynist tendencies online. There are places where those bad things are happening on the Internet.
I think it’s hard for me to say because I don’t think it’s happening because of the Internet. A lot of problems are just accelerated through the Internet. I think at large, even if you look at misinformation, I would still say “OK, we have this very complex and serious issue of misinformation, but at the same time it’s so good that the Internet enables us to get information from other parts of the world.”
Not to say misinformation is a small problem at all, at the same time there are so many positive effects that I would not say that the internet as a whole is headed the wrong direction.
The good is outweighing the bad?
Well, thinking of the testimony of Zuckerberg. He was saying that in a few years AI will be so good it will filter out hate speech. That maybe is something that I am worried about: things disappearing and you don’t even know it happened because an algorithm already decided that, no, you can’t upload this or you can’t send this.
That seems to go to your philosophy that you don’t want to tell people what to think. You want to show them what’s going on and they can make up their own minds. You worry that in the future we won’t be able to make up our own mind, it will be made up for us.
Yeah. A lot of it is the frictionless design. A comment should be visually marked as having been removed. There’s a lot of design questions that need to be answered. That’s a weird answer but I feel like the good things about the Internet I still feel outweigh the bad things.
Maybe that’s the thing. Data should be deleted in a certain time frame. The trend is that we keep all the data. A few years ago there was this conversation about, “What if the Internet resets itself every 10 years?”
I would be down for that.
I think so, too. Maybe we should forget some things.
App permissions, for example. Why were those, to begin with, set out to be infinite? Why wasn’t there a limit of how long you can access people’s credentials?
In general, for the things that worry me, I feel like there are design decisions that aren’t actually that hard to make. They just need to be made.
For example, working on that one project, about clearing out your preferences. Why does that have to be so hard to do? Why do you have to click every single thing instead of just.
Yeah. Also why does it have to be always public by default?
Also, a big design movement that’s been going on for years is how to design terms and conditions or terms of service. Why are they so hard to understand? That’s an example of something where we should be like “we can solve this”. I’m not saying that its easy, but it’s solvable.
The solutions are out there?
In what ways have connecting with other fellows or other people in the Mozilla community or staff impacted you? How do you think you have grown from being in that network?
I haven’t been in a community or network where everyone in it is so passionate about making the Internet better. That’s, in general, really inspiring to see. I feel optimistic being in the network. That’s good.
Change, for me, is also seeing different ways you can contribute in doing something about the state of the Internet. It’s inspiring that you can do different things and that there are a lot of things out there, too.
Going to events and hearing about other fellows’ work is also seeing that the Internet here is not the Internet in the Middle East. It’s not the Internet in Asia. It’s not the Internet in South America. Again, there’s a lot of things to do and to tackle.
What about collaboration-wise?
Collaboration wise, it’s also great. What I also found fascinating was seeing tech policy fellows, for example. Working along with Becca – somebody more experienced in writing and articulating concepts. For me, it’s also then seeing in what kind of collaboration I feel the best.
The most useful?
The most useful and also how other people can be useful to me. [laughs] It’s just good collaboration when the skills are complementing each other, so that’s good for me to go through and see what works best.
That makes sense. What is next?
[laughs] I honestly don’t know. More collaborations hopefully, because there are a lot of things to tackle. And together we can do more.
I want to get to know more about what are the Internet issues in Asia. From a personal background, my parents are from Vietnam. I visit Vietnam every two, three years, so I want to know more about it.
I know that, for example, my cousin gave me a SIM card last time I visited. I got a lot of marketing SMS. That that’s possible, for example, as weird to me. I think there is more for me to learn about how things work in that region.
[note – after publishing this interview, Hang launched an investigation into the data that is published on Venmo : Public By Default]
Do you think you’ll stay on Internet as your focus area? You don’t want to go work on media that’s about the environment or slavery? Is the Internet your issue for now?
The Internet is my issue, as I don’t see the Internet as an isolated place.
I really like how Mark said it before, how if you have a healthy Internet, then many the things in society also fall into place. We can accomplish that more easily when we have a healthy Internet, when everybody’s participating and have diverse voices. It’s the Internet, but it’s bigger than the Internet.