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Facebook Says 87 Million Users' Data May Have Been Improperly Accessed

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We are learning more about Facebook's struggle over the control of users' data. According to the tech giant, malicious actors took advantage of Facebook's search tools to collect information on users. Facebook also says the data grabbed by Cambridge Analytica may be much bigger than first reported. It announced that the data analytics firm that was used by the Trump campaign in 2016 could have improperly accessed up to 87 million users and data from those users. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has now agreed to testify before committees in both the House and the Senate. He also addressed the issues in a conference call with reporters yesterday.

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MARK ZUCKERBERG: It's clear now that we didn't do enough. We didn't focus enough on preventing abuse and thinking through how people could use these tools to do harm as well. And that goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, in addition to developers and data privacy.

MARTIN: I'm joined now by David Ingram. He's a tech correspondent for Reuters.

David, thanks for being with us.

DAVID INGRAM: My pleasure.

MARTIN: So Mark Zuckerberg doesn't talk a lot to the media, so the fact that he held this conference call with reporters indicates just how serious this is for the company and the level of damage control they're doing right now, right?

INGRAM: That's correct. He's been doing a series of media interviews. His No. 2, Sheryl Sandberg - who, in her own right, is a famous American business executive - is doing interviews later this week, as well. And in these interviews, they are apologizing. They are saying that they are going to notify these 87 million people who had their data grabbed and make other changes to try to protect privacy.

MARTIN: Before we get to those changes, I mean, what about the data that's already been abused by Cambridge Analytica? I mean, what do they tell the users who've had that data violated?

INGRAM: So they're going to tell them that their data may have been harvested by this consultancy, Cambridge Analytica, and the academic they were working with to get all these Facebook profiles. But beyond that, there's really not much that Facebook can say. According...

MARTIN: They can't get it back. They can't ensure that it's not being used in another way.

INGRAM: Exactly. The cat is out of the barn. And once data is - has left Facebook or any other place, it is nearly impossible to track it down or ensure that it has been deleted.

MARTIN: So, I mean, what can they do to make sure that this doesn't happen again? What kind of solutions are they talking about?

INGRAM: Well, so we're really talking about apps that sort of build onto Facebook that you connect to your Facebook profile. There are thousands of those out there. And they are clamping down and have been since 2015 on the kinds of data that those apps can get about you and about your friends. The key period we're talking about here was 2010 to 2015, when Facebook's rules on this were relatively lax.

MARTIN: So, I mean, some have suggested that Zuckerberg's leadership of Facebook is in question now. I mean, did you get a sense on this call that he is trying to defend himself personally?

INGRAM: He was asked about this, I believe, at least twice on the call, about whether he was the right person to lead Facebook or whether his corporate board was discussing stepping - him stepping down. That is almost impossible to imagine, since he founded the company and is still, to this day, the controlling shareholder. So he has complete control over who is on the board and who gets to be the CEO. So if he is no longer the CEO, it'll be because of his decision.

MARTIN: Right. So he's going to go to Capitol Hill. He has conceded that he will come and ask - and answer questions from lawmakers. Where do you think that line of questioning is going to go?

INGRAM: Well, I think we're going to hear from some lawmakers who really want to create more of a European-style legal structure in the United States to protect people's personal information. And they're going to press Mark Zuckerberg to try to get his support behind something like that. There's a new European law taking effect in May. But I think even among senators who aren't going to support going that far, there's just a sense that Facebook has gotten so enormous and there doesn't seem to be someone who's really accountable outside of Mark Zuckerberg, and he has complete control of the company, of course.

MARTIN: You know, Tim Wu of Columbia University wrote about this recently, that it's kind of surprising there's not any competition for Facebook. You would think that at this point, some other companies would say, we can do this better; we can provide this service and give you more privacy.

INGRAM: It is surprising, and that's relatively new. I mean, I think a few years ago, we were talking about Twitter as a competitor to Facebook or Snapchat, but Facebook has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years. You could consider Google to be your competitor in some respects, but it is going to be really hard for any other company to get to the 2-billion-user level that Facebook is at right now.

MARTIN: Right. David Ingram - he's a tech reporter with Reuters news. He joined us on Skype this morning. David, thank you so much.

INGRAM: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILANTHROPE'S "CITY LIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.