Zuckerberg Reiterates Obligation to Privacy

Posted March 21, 2018 9:42 p.m. EDT

For much of the past week, Facebook has been embroiled in a controversy involving Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm with ties to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, and how it improperly obtained and exploited personal data from 50 million Facebook users.

On Wednesday, Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, spoke with New York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Kevin Roose about the controversy and the steps he was taking to make the social network less prone to abuse. Edited excerpts from the conversation follow.

Sheera Frenkel: Did it come as a surprise to you, the user response to the news that Cambridge Analytica had accessed this trove of data?

Mark Zuckerberg: Privacy issues have always been incredibly important to people. One of our biggest responsibilities is to protect data. If you think about what our services are, at their most basic level, you put some content into a service, whether it’s a photo or a video or a text message — whether it’s Facebook or WhatsApp or Instagram — and you’re trusting that that content is going to be shared with the people you want to share it with. Whenever there’s an issue where someone’s data gets passed to someone who the rules of the system shouldn’t have allowed it to, that’s rightfully a big issue and deserves to be a big uproar.

SF: It took quite a few days for your response to come out. Is that because you were weighing these three action points that you noted in your post?

MZ: The first thing is, I really wanted to make sure we had a full and accurate understanding of everything that happened. I know that there was a lot of pressure to speak sooner, but my assessment was that it was more important that what we said was fully accurate.

The second thing is, the most important thing is that we fix this system so that issues like this don’t happen again. It’s not like there aren’t going to be other different kind of things we’ll also have to fix. But when there’s a certain problem, we have a responsibility to at least make sure we resolve that problem.

So the actions here that we’re going to do involve first, dramatically reducing the amount of data that developers have access to. The most important actions there we actually took three or four years ago. But when we examined the systems this week, there were certainly other things we felt we should lock down, too.

Even if you solve the problem going forward, there’s still this issue of: Are there other Cambridge Analyticas out there? Were there apps which could have gotten access to more information, and potentially sold it without us knowing, or done something that violated people’s trust? We also need to make sure we get that under control.

The third thing is, it’s really important that people know what apps they’ve authorized. A lot of people have been on Facebook now for five or 10 years, and sometimes you signed into an app a long time ago and you may have forgotten about that. So one of the steps we’re taking is making it so apps can no longer access data after you haven’t used them for three months.

Kevin Roose: Is Facebook planning to notify the 50 million users whose data was shared with Cambridge Analytica?

MZ: Yes. We’re going to tell anyone whose data may have been shared.

KR: Do you have a preliminary estimate of how many apps you’ll be investigating?

MZ: It will be in the thousands.

KR: There were reports as far back as 2015 that Cambridge Analytica had access to this data set. Why didn’t you suspend them then?

MZ: So, we actually heard, I think it was at the end of 2015 — some journalists from The Guardian reached out to us and told us what you just said. And it was not just about Cambridge Analytica, it was about this developer, Aleksandr Kogan, who had shared data with them.

We took action immediately at that point. We banned Kogan’s app from the platform, we demanded that Kogan and Cambridge Analytica and a couple other parties that Kogan had shared the data with would legally certify that they didn’t have the data, and weren’t using it in any of their operations. They gave us that formal certification. At the time, they told us they never had gotten access to raw Facebook data, so we made that decision.

SF: In retrospect, do you wish you had demanded proof that the data had been deleted?

MZ: Yes. They gave us a formal and legal certification, and it seems at that point that that was false.

KR: Are you worried about the #DeleteFacebook campaign that’s been going around?

MZ: I don’t think we’ve seen a meaningful number of people act on that, but, you know, it’s not good. I think it’s a clear signal that this is a major trust issue for people, and I understand that. And whether people delete their app over it or just don’t feel good about using Facebook, that’s a big issue that I think we have a responsibility to rectify. SF: We’re now heading into the 2018 midterms. Could you speak about what Facebook is going to do ahead of the 2018 midterms to make people feel more confident that the platform won’t be misused?

MZ: This is an incredibly important point. There’s no doubt that in 2016, there were a number of issues including foreign interference and false news that we did not have as much of a handle on as we feel a responsibility to for our community.

Now, the good news here is that these problems aren’t necessarily rocket science. They’re hard, but they’re things that if you invest and work on making it harder for adversaries to do what they’re trying to do, you can really reduce the amount of false news, make it harder for foreign governments to interfere.

One of the things that gives me confidence is that we’ve seen a number of elections at this point where this has gone a lot better.

In 2017 with the special election in Alabama, we deployed some A.I. tools to identify fake accounts and false news, and we found a significant number of Macedonian accounts that were trying to spread false news, and were able to eliminate those. You’re the first people I’m telling about that.

I feel a lot better about the systems now. At the same time, I think Russia and other governments are going to get more sophisticated in what they do, too. So we need to make sure that we up our game.

KR: Is the basic economic model of Facebook, in which users provide data that Facebook uses to help advertisers and developers to better target potential customers and users — do you feel like that works, given what we now know about the risks?

MZ: Yeah, so this is a really important question. The thing about the ad model that is really important that aligns with our mission is that — our mission is to build a community for everyone in the world and to bring the world closer together. And a really important part of that is making a service that people can afford. A lot of the people, once you get past the first billion people, can’t afford to pay a lot. Therefore, having it be free and have a business model that is ad-supported ends up being really important and aligned.

Now, over time, might there be ways for people who can afford it to pay a different way? That’s certainly something we’ve thought about over time. But I don’t think the ad model is going to go away, because I think fundamentally, it’s important to have a service like this that everyone in the world can use, and the only way to do that is to have it be very cheap or free.

KR: Do you feel any guilt about the role Facebook is playing in the world?

MZ: That’s a good question. I think, you know, we’re doing something here which is unprecedented, in terms of building a community for people all over the world to be able to share what matters to them, and connect across boundaries. I think what we’re seeing is, there are new challenges that I don’t think anyone had anticipated before.

If you had asked me, when I got started with Facebook, if one of the central things I’d need to work on now is preventing governments from interfering in each other’s elections, there’s no way I thought that’s what I’d be doing, if we talked in 2004 in my dorm room.

I don’t know that it’s possible to know every issue that you’re going to face down the road. But we have a real responsibility to take all these issues seriously as they come up, and work with experts and people around the world to make sure we solve them, and do a good job for our community.