University News

Alum talks privacy policy at Facebook

Matt Perault ’02 weighs security, privacy concerns when developing company’s policy positions

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, October 20, 2016

Head of global policy development for Facebook, Matt Perault ’02, spoke on campus Wednesday about the company’s security and privacy policies.

Matt Perault ’02, head of the policy development team at Facebook, spoke at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs Wednesday, answering a series of questions from audience members and Watson Institute Director Edward Steinfeld on issues including privacy, security and surveillance.

Perault runs Facebook’s policy team in Washington D.C., which shapes the company’s position on certain issues such as cybersecurity, law enforcement, human rights and sustainability, he told The Herald.

To enhance users’ trust of Facebook, the company is responsive to feedback and attempts to be open about the way it treats user data, Perault said. “We don’t do things that … are out of line with people’s expectations of how their data is used.” Facebook is also focused on “giving people control of their information,” Perault said, adding that users can choose from many privacy and sharing options.

Yet Steinfeld noted that, on some technological platforms, there is a certain “burden on the user” to read through privacy agreements and settings. Facebook expects average users to read hundreds of pages of privacy agreements to truly stay informed with where their data is going, Steinfeld said.

While acknowledging that user agreements can be long, Facebook wants to leave privacy options to its users to avoid being “paternalistic,” Perault said.

Steinfeld then shifted his questions toward Facebook’s balance between information requests from law enforcement and users’ expectations of privacy.

When Facebook receives information requests, “we push back as much as we possibly can … (and) interpret legal requests very narrowly,” Perault said. But Facebook responds when requests are “legitimate,” he added.

One audience member asked if it is possible to reconcile the interests of the federal government with those of the private sector.

The two sides usually manage to compromise, Perault said, using the topic of encryption as an example. The goal of Facebook’s policy team is to “make sure that governments understand the value of the products and that there aren’t constraints placed on those products that limit the scope of innovation,” Perault told The Herald in an interview preceding the event.

When reflecting back on his time as an undergraduate at the University, Perault praised Keith Brown, director of postdoctoral and undergraduate policy programs at the Watson Institute. Perault and Brown collaborated on an independent study seminar about forest fires in Ethiopia, and Brown’s support and feedback on the seminar “has helped (Perault) think about the nature of the policy (he has) worked on since,” Perault said.

Steinfeld also asked about the climate at Facebook after Edward Snowden came forward with information about the National Security Agency in 2013.

The allegation that the NSA had a direct link to Facebook’s servers of user information is false, Perault said. But it is “a continuing business issue” at the company because “if people don’t trust us, we don’t have a viable business,” he added.

Perault suggests that current students who want to pursue careers in policy should “get involved” and “expose (themselves) to aspects of (technology) policy,” he told The Herald. “Put yourself in a position where you are thoughtful about how you wrestle with tradeoffs,” he added.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Matt Perault ’02 is the head of global policy development at Facebook. In fact, he is the head of the policy development team. The Herald regrets the error. 

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