Home AdExchanger Talks Speaking Truth To Power, With The Markup’s CEO Nabiha Syed

Speaking Truth To Power, With The Markup’s CEO Nabiha Syed

Nabiha Syed, CEO, The Markup

“Big Tech Is Watching You. We’re Watching Big Tech.”

That’s The Markup’s slogan. The Markup is a nonprofit news organization founded in 2018 and launched in early 2020, just a couple of weeks before the pandemic began.

It runs in-depth, data-driven investigations that reveal the various ways in which technology is reshaping society, with a focus on Big Tech companies – Google, Meta, Amazon and their ilk – but “also the tech you’ve never heard of,” says Nabiha Syed, The Markup’s CEO, on this week’s episode of AdExchanger Talks.

“This is the tech that decides whether or not you get to rent an apartment or whether you can apply for a school and how your application is regarded – or where your health data in your little fitness tracker goes and what that might mean down the line,” says Syed, who spent more than four years as VP and associate general counsel at BuzzFeed before joining The Markup in 2019.

Aiming for action

But it’s not just The Markup’s mission to shine a light. The hope is that its research “lands in the hands of people who can do something about it,” Syed says, whether that’s a policymaker, a regulator or an everyday citizen.

In June, The Markup published the fruits of an investigation revealing that 33 of the top 100 hospitals in the US were sharing sensitive patient data with Facebook to target ads through the use of Meta’s site pixel.

As a result, in early August, Meta and several of the hospitals were hit with a lawsuit in the Northern District of California for allegedly violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

But The Markup’s hospital investigation “hits on something [else] important,” Syed says, “which is this element of surprise and intrusion.”

The average person wouldn’t assume that Facebook is being notified when they book an appointment with their doctor on, say the Cleveland Medical Center’s website.


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“That kind of surprise and shock is what leads to lawsuits and other regulatory intervention because it’s beyond the realm of average expectation,” Syed says.

And the same could be said for the ad tech industry writ large.

“My feeling about the industry, like with many industries, is: good intentions, clear business need and a lot of unintended bad consequences,” Syed says. “I come from the news business [and] I understand the value of making news or content creation or creative work sustainable. But I think those incentives unchecked and, frankly, the unintended consequences of those incentives mean that we have strange outcomes – like the ability to combine someone’s location information from their car and their period-tracking app.”

Also in this episode: Why Syed believes “surveillance advertising” is a fair characterization of the online ad industry, why monetization and privacy protection aren’t mutually exclusive, why social media will remain broken so long as Big Tech platforms are incentivized to “prey on attention” and a method for making Thin Mints even more delicious (as if such a thing is possible).

For more articles featuring Nabiha Syed, click here.

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