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Facebook Admits Data-Mining Firm Got Access To Millions Of Users' Personal Information

Mar 19, 2018
Originally published on March 19, 2018 6:46 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Facebook's share price tumbled today. The tech giant is on the defensive, and that's because it let the private information of some 50 million users wind up in the hands of a data mining firm that worked for the Trump campaign. From Capitol Hill to Westminster in London, lawmakers want to know why Facebook didn't do more to protect users' privacy. In a moment, we'll hear from a state attorney general looking into the matter.

But now we're joined by NPR tech correspondent Aarti Shahani, who's at Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park. Hey, Aarti.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: So how Facebook data wound up in the hands of this data mining firm is a pretty complicated story. Can you just start off by breaking that down for us?

SHANANI: Yeah, so the story starts three years ago. There's this Russian-American professor, and he made an app, OK? He built it as a personality predictor. Give us your Facebook feed, your likes, your posts, and we'll tell you about yourself - OK, sounds innocuous. Well, about 270,000 people downloaded. But because of how Facebook set up its system, the app didn't just get their profiles. It sucked in friends' profiles, too. So that's you get up to 50 million users, the vast majority of whom did not opt in, right?

CHANG: Right.

SHANANI: And this guy turns around, and he passes the data on to Cambridge Analytica, which is against Facebook's terms. And, you know, again, Cambridge Analytica is a firm that helped the Trump campaign with social media targeting.

So fast-forward to this past Friday. Out of the blue, a Facebook lawyer posts a blog saying, hey, back in 2015, we learned about this. We told the parties to delete the data, and we've discovered maybe that did not happen. What the lawyer failed to say was The New York Times and the U.K.'s Observer were about to publish an explosive report about it.

CHANG: Right, OK. And I know you've been hanging out today at Facebook's headquarters. What has it been like there?

SHANANI: Yes, yeah. Hi from the parking lot.

(LAUGHTER)

SHANANI: You know, the thing is I came here - Facebook is under attack from all over, right? And you'd expect the executives there to explain and defend themselves publicly. But that hasn't happened, you know? What they tend to do is hole up and go quiet at the very moment, you know, when the world is really asking them to speak up. So you know, we figured it made sense for me to show up here, come to their doorstep and ask them to talk to us.

CHANG: And what's happened so far?

SHANANI: Well, the social network is not being that social.

CHANG: (Laughter).

SHANANI: Security was kind enough to seat me. And a spokeswoman, Genevieve Grdina, brought me water and offered me tea and coffee.

CHANG: That's nice.

SHANANI: But, you know, I'm not here for that. I'm here for an interview. But she did tell me they're not going to grant one today. But she says they are working on scheduling one for tomorrow with NPR.

CHANG: OK, well, what has Facebook said about all of this since the news broke a couple days ago?

SHANANI: You know, I would just characterize it as a deafening silence, OK? There's been nothing - not a word, not a Facebook post - from the CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, or from Sheryl Sandberg. There was that blog post I mentioned from the Facebook lawyer.

CHANG: Right.

SHANANI: He also added an update there saying that, hey, some people are calling this a data breach. It's not a breach in the traditional sense. And so, you know, I'll be curious to see if they change strategy and, instead of a silent treatment, you know, move on to talking.

CHANG: And just very briefly, this morning on NPR, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar said that these platforms cannot police themselves. She's among the senators calling on Mark Zuckerberg to testify before Congress. But what do you see Congress doing? How do they take a role in this policy-wise?

SHANANI: Namely consumer protection, OK? Right now, Facebook isn't really governed by laws. It's governed by competition and reputational damage. You know, what are the penalties that Facebook should face when it lets users' data fall in the wrong hands?

CHANG: All right, that's NPR's Aarti Shahani. Thank you.

SHANANI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.