Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

In a Period of Eighteen Months, Over Fifty Facebook Engineers Were Fired for Accessing Private User Data

New York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang have written a new book about Facebook, “An Ugly Truth”, with an apt cover design. Last week, the Times published an excerpt about the fractured relationship between Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg. But it is the one published yesterday in the Telegraph that I think warrants further comment:

During a period spanning January 2014 to August 2015, the engineer who looked up his onetime date was just one of 52 Facebook employees fired for exploiting their access to user data. Men who looked up the Facebook profiles of women they were interested in made up the vast majority of engineers who abused their privileges. Most did little more than look up users’ information. But a few took it much further. One engineer used the data to confront a woman who had travelled with him on a European holiday; the two had gotten into a fight during the trip, and the engineer tracked her to her new hotel after she left the room they had been sharing. Another engineer accessed a woman’s Facebook page before they had even gone on a first date. He saw that she regularly visited Dolores Park, in San Francisco, and he found her there one day, enjoying the sun with her friends.

I do not know that Facebook will ever live down the reputation established by a teenaged Zuckerberg in an instant message to a friend of his after he launched it:

Zuck: They “trust me”

Zuck: Dumb fucks.

According to this excerpt, the limitations on engineer access to Facebook user data did not change much between the time Zuckerberg sent those messages and mid-2015. Mix that attitude with the goal Zuckerberg elucidated in a 2007 conversation with Sandberg before hiring her:

[…] he described his goal of turning every person in the country with an internet connection into a Facebook user.

There are now databases containing the personal details of about a third of the world’s population which, at least for a span of eighteen months, an average of one engineer was fired every two weeks for improperly accessing users’ profiles, targeted advertising categories, or location data. This excerpt implies they were caught because they had used company-provided computers, and that they only represent a fraction of the “thousands” of engineers spying on Facebook users. This is an extraordinary abuse of power, akin to real-world stalking with fewer risks to the perpetrator.

In this excerpt and in a brief mention in the Times’ review, Alex Stamos comes out looking pretty good. I am curious about whether that holds in the full story.

You may need to log into a Telegraph account to read this link. Or you can just get the book; I placed a hold on a copy from my local library.