Culture

Facebook employees' access to user data was always going to lead to abuse

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 10: Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg appears for a hearing at the Hart Senate Office Building on Tuesday April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg, who is the CEO of Facebook is appearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

16K

The reported number of Facebook employees with access to sensitive user data in 2015.

Business Insider

The Washington Post/The Washington Post/Getty Images

According to An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, the new tell-all released this week by reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, Mark Zuckerberg’s Big Tech juggernaut terminated no fewer than 52 employees between 2014 and 2015 for horrifically abusing their access to users’ most personal profile data, including real-time locations and private message histories.

What’s more, although Mark Zuckerberg himself reportedly considered the recurring issues “a top priority,” any meaningful change was routinely stymied by his opposition to data access limitations. The company’s top brass widely understood alterations like limiting the length of time Facebook retained data were never a feasible option, given Zuckerberg’s personal beliefs. One employee even went so far as to call such compromises "antithetical to Mark's DNA.” An estimated 16,000 workers had similar data access at the time.

With great access, comes great temptation — Between January 2014 and August 2015, over 50 Facebook engineers were identified and fired for flagrant abuse of their far-reaching access to user data. Examples included an employee who tracked down his partner’s real-time location after she booked another hotel following an argument between them while on vacation and multiple instances of men prying into the profiles of women they were interested in.

"We've always had zero tolerance for abuse and have fired every single employee ever found to be improperly accessing data," Facebook told Business Insider in an official statement. “We're also continuing to reduce the need for engineers to access some types of data as they work to build and support our services."

Don’t let the PR fool you. God only knows what kinds of egregious privacy violations we’ll learn of from Facebook five years down the road.

Yeah... but not like this, Mark.San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images/Hearst Newspapers/Getty Images

Everyone should have seen this coming — As unsettling as the newest revelations are, they should surprise absolutely no one. Facebook’s entire, barely concealed M.O. from its inception was the wholesale acquiring of its users' data. Everything from location, to relationship preferences, to consumer purchases, to what you watch in the middle of the night is tracked by Zuckerberg’s sprawling social media ecosystem. Back-end engineers do occasionally require access to a lot of this data, but there’s no way something in the order of 16,000 people could be properly vetted and trusted to handle that level of access without repeated instances of abuse.

This is coming from the top — As Insider explains, Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer at the time, reportedly suggested tightening the number of employees with access to such personal, potentially compromising data to 5,000, with only 100 or so allowed to see information like users’ passwords. He also proposed creating a system of formal requests for personal data, but “received pushback from executives.”

The latest revelations paint a clearer picture than ever before on the situation — Facebook’s trove of highly personal data isn’t a passive byproduct of its system, it’s intentional, and growing it at whatever cost is a top priority for those at the top of the company’s food chain regardless of the cost. Zuckerberg and his cadre may genuinely feel some semblance of remorse for their employees’ misuse of their powers, but not enough to do what needs to be done when profits are on the line.