Facebook says data on most of its 2bn users is vulnerable

Emotional CEO Mark Zuckerberg defends his position and says he intends to stay in charge

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg says that the company has removed pages linked to Russia's Internet Research Agency in an attempt to stop the spread of false information. Video: CCTV

Social media giant Facebook said data on most of its two billion users worldwide could have been accessed improperly, giving fresh evidence of the ways it failed to protect people's privacy while generating billions of dollars in revenue from the information.

The company said it has now removed a feature that let users enter phone numbers or email addresses into Facebook’s search tool to find other people. That was being used by “malicious actors” to scrape public profile information, it said.

“Given the scale and sophistication of the activity we’ve seen, we believe most people on Facebook could have had their public profile scraped in this way,” the company said. “So we have now disabled this feature.”

Facebook also said data on as many as 87 million people, most of them in the US, may have been improperly shared with research firm Cambridge Analytica. This is Facebook's first official confirmation of the possible scope of the data leak, which was previously estimated at roughly 50 million.


It has resulted in calls from legislators and policy makers for greater regulation of social media, helping to shave billion of dollars from the company’s market value.

In a relatively emotional question and answer session with analysts, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook chairman and chief executive, admitted making mistakes, confirmed he would testify before a US congressional committee investigating online privacy, and followed up later in the day with a rare news conference at which he took responsibility for the Cambridge Analytica situation.

“I’m not looking to throw anyone else under the bus for the mistakes we’ve made here,” he said, adding that he believes that it will take a “multiyear effort” to resolve issues including privacy and fake news on the social network.

Mr Zuckerberg said he was not aware of any board conversations about whether he should step down as Facebook’s chairman. One institutional investor has called for him to relinquish the role.

Asked if he was the right person to serve as chief executive, he said, “Yes. I think life is about learning from mistakes and figuring out what you need to do to move forward.”

Facebook also said in a blog post that the majority of its users had probably had their public profiles scraped for information such as names and email addresses. It said it had shut down the tool that made that possible.

Mr Zuckerberg said that if users had any information public at “some point over the last several years, someone has probably accessed your public info in this way”.

He added that he had seen no “meaningful” decline in Facebook use or advertising. The company’s stock rose 3 per cent to $155.10 in after-hours trading on Wednesday.

“We didn’t take a broad enough view of what our responsibility was and that was a huge mistake. It was my mistake,” Mr Zuckerberg said on a conference call with reporters. “We’re broadening our view of our responsibility.”

Mr Zuckerberg is scheduled to appear before a joint hearing of the US senate judiciary and commerce committee on April 11th to discuss Facebook’s role in society and users’ privacy.

Australia’s government also said it has started a formal investigation into whether Facebook breached the country’s privacy laws.

Mr Zuckerberg defended the company’s advertising business model, confirmed he wants to stay in charge and disclosed no “meaningful impact” from an online campaign by some users to delete their Facebook accounts.

Facebook stock rose almost 3 per cent in extended trading on Wednesday, after closing at $155.10 in New York.

About 270,000 people downloaded a personality quiz app and shared information about themselves and their friends with a researcher, who then passed along the information to Cambridge Analytica, in a move that Facebook says was against its rules.

Facebook reached the 87 million figure by adding up all the unique people that those 270,000 users were friends with at the time they gave the app permission. Facebook made the new disclosure in an online posting Wednesday.

Cambridge Analytica, which worked for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, said it licensed data on 30 million people, countering Facebook’s 87 million estimate.

Cambridge Analytica said in a tweet that it “immediately deleted the raw data from our file server, and began the process of searching for and removing any of its derivatives in our system” after Facebook contacted them to let them know data had been improperly obtained.

Facebook says it will tell people, in a notice at the top of their news feeds starting next Monday, April 9th, if their information may have been improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica. But it still hasn’t independently confirmed if the firm currently has the data.

The revelation, and the subsequent media questions, hint at the grilling Mr Zuckerberg will likely face when he testifies on the matter before Congress next week: How many other Cambridge Analytica-scale leaks of data are out there?

Mr Zuckerberg, in Wednesday’s call, said he couldn’t be sure.

“We’re not going to be able to go out and find every single bad use of data, but what we can do is make it a lot harder for folks to do that going forward,” he said. “I think we will be able to uncover a large amount of bad activity that exists.”

The company has been embroiled in controversy for weeks over the revelation that data was shared and then not deleted.

It raised questions over the information Facebook compiles on users, makes available to third parties, and what happens to it afterward. Facebook made the announcement along with an update on its plans to restrict data access through its platform.

Mr Zuckerberg defended gathering user data for a business model that lets advertisers use Facebook’s information and targeting tools to reach specific audiences.

“People tell us that, if they’re going to see ads, they want the ads to be good,” he said, noting that requires keeping track of what people are interested in.

Either way, he thinks he should remain at the helm of Facebook. “I think life is about learning from mistakes and figuring out what you need to do to move forward,” he said. – Bloomberg