New research introduces the concept of ‘data leverage’

Streaming services, social media sites, and search engines rely on massive amounts of data from their users to be successful. Their artificial intelligence systems and algorithms would be much less effective without the public’s cooperation.

New research from CS&E assistant professor Stevie Chancellor and her collaborators at Northwestern University introduces the term “date leverage” to describe this influence that consumers have over tech companies. The researchers looked into ways the public can impact businesses by changing their online behavior. The paper also presents a framework for understanding data leverage that highlights new opportunities to change technology company behavior related to privacy, economic inequality, content moderation, and other areas of societal concern.

"One of the ways the public can take control, especially if they feel a company is abusing their personal data, is through a data strike," shared Chancellor. "Our research found it is actually quite easy for people to strike, meaning they withhold or delete their data so a tech firm cannot use it to feed their machine learning systems."

Dr. Chancellor completed the majority of this work during her postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Computer Science at Northwestern. Along with associate professor Brent Hecht, she supervised and guided Ph.D. students Nicholas Vincent, Hanlin Li, and Nicole Tilly through the research and writing process.

Their paper, "Data Leverage: A Framework for Empowering the Public in its Relationship with Technology Companies" was accepted for publication during this month’s ACM Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency (ACM FAccT) 2021.

The work has already received coverage in Fortune and the MIT Technology Review.