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Facebook Suspends Cambridge Analytica But Privacy Feature Questions Mount


There are growing questions about Facebook's privacy features in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The political data firm gathered hyper-specific data from millions of Facebook accounts, identifying likes and dislikes and then using that information to try and influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been notably silent. And critics, like his former adviser Roger McNamee, say the company's inaction in protecting user data is a threat to democracy. Here he is on our program yesterday.


ROGER MCNAMEE: We're talking about treating users like human beings as opposed to, like, the fuel for a business that generates profits. And, in my mind, this is a character test. And they're having a really hard time with it.

GREENE: And we should say, Facebook has suspended Cambridge Analytica from its site. I want to bring in Dipayan Ghosh. He was an adviser to President Obama on technology and economics and then went on to join Facebook, where he worked on the company's privacy and public policy team. Good morning. And thanks for coming on.

DIPAYAN GHOSH: Thanks so much for having me, David.

GREENE: So in your time at Facebook, I mean, presumably you're - part of your job, at least, was to identify privacy concerns. What was missed here that might have led to this?

GHOSH: This is a really difficult question. I don't think that there is any particular thing that the company necessarily did wrong here. First of all, we've heard very clearly from the chief security officer Alex Stamos, this was not a security breach. And technically speaking, he's right. On the other hand, there are certainly some questionable policies that that may have been drawn up in the way that data was shared with the particular researcher in concern here and the way that he could have shared data with third parties.

GREENE: So that is - you're bringing up a couple of the key questions. There was this academic researcher who got this data which, under Facebook policy, is not permissible to share that data with a third party, which he did. But I want to ask, I mean, one vulnerability that caught my eye is the fact that apps can gather data from friends of Facebook users. So in this case, you know, you had a few hundred thousand users signed up for a personality quiz, but all of their friends' profiles were pilfered without them knowing. Isn't that the kind of thing that Facebook is accountable for here?

GHOSH: I think that you're hitting right on the point that is most critical here. The researcher gained data through his primary research, working directly with a couple hundred thousand Facebook users but then accessed the data of the friends of those users. And that is exactly what should be in question here. And I think that the company is really thinking hard about this and, of course, has ceased that ability for researchers now. But we all have to ask this question now as to how this could have ever happened.

GREENE: Do you, having been in that role, feel any regret or sense of responsibility here?

GHOSH: Well, I think this whole incident actually may have happened before I started at the company. Look. I think that when we're part of an organization like that - just like working in the White House or in the government, we all have to take responsibility for the things that the organization does. And so if it's found that Facebook was culpable in any way, sure, I share some of the responsibility here.

GREENE: What do you think is key to happen now? I mean, a lot of people are looking at this as a real moment for Facebook to have to really come to terms with its privacy policies, do a lot of soul searching and maybe be a different company. Is that - would you agree with that?

GHOSH: I think we are focusing on Facebook specifically here. And what we have to remember is that Facebook is one of many huge Internet platforms that operate globally. And this is really a broader-picture question. The interests of any internet platform and the interests of the advertiser are often one and the same. They both want to engage the user on the screen for as long as possible. For the platform, it increases ad space. For the advertiser, it affords the opportunity to persuade the user more effectively. But when the advertiser has nefarious intents - so, for example, if the advertiser's Cambridge Analytica operating in bad faith or the Russian government trying to influence the American elections, Internet companies need to do something about it. Otherwise, we're going to see the negative externalities that have, really, so forcefully taken hold of us all.

GREENE: We've heard nothing from Mark Zuckerberg since this has all been happening. Are you convinced that he is taking this seriously and believes that there is something significant he has to do here?

GHOSH: Absolutely. He's in the crucible right now. And I think it was reported earlier this morning that he is going to make a public statement in the next 24 hours. And I think that what's important here is that he's a great person. He's obviously got a lot of influence. But he understands that with his responsibility comes a lot of power. And I wouldn't necessarily say this of all Silicon Valley CEOs. And I think what's happened is that the company has been shaken to its core over the past few days. And he has had to micromanage the situation behind the curtain. And I think that it's a positive development that he's going to come forward with a statement very soon, we hope.

GREENE: I mean, this is an election year. Can Facebook users at this moment feel safe that their information is not potentially being pilfered and used in some nefarious way or used to influence an election?

GHOSH: In this entire past few days, everybody has been looking back at three Internet companies, at one foreign actor. But we really need to be looking forward as the 2018 elections come about. And I think that it's going to be very hard to determine where this data from Cambridge Analytica went or could have gone and whether or not similar incidents like this may have happened not just with Facebook but with other Internet companies that have tremendous influence globally. It's actually a very, very hard question to answer right now.

GREENE: Dipayan Ghosh is a former member of Facebook's privacy and public policy team. He's currently a fellow at both the New America think tank and at the Harvard Kennedy School. Thanks for your time this morning.

GHOSH: Thank you so much for having me, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FLASHBULBS' "FOG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.