A Facebook engineer abused access to user data to track down a woman who had left their hotel room after they fought on vacation, new book says

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • Facebook fired 52 people from 2014 to August 2015 over abusing access to user data, a new book says.

  • One person used data to find a woman he was traveling with who had left him after a fight, the book says.

  • Changes to retention of such data were "antithetical to Mark's DNA," one employee told the authors.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

A Facebook engineer abused employee access to user data to track down a woman who had left him after they fought, a new book said.

Between January 2014 and August 2015, the company fired 52 employees over exploiting user data for personal means, said an advance copy of "An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination" that Insider obtained.

The engineer, who is unnamed, tapped into the data to "confront" a woman with whom he had been vacationing in Europe after she left the hotel room they had been sharing, the book said. He was able to figure out her location at a different hotel.

Another Facebook engineer used his employee access to dig up information on a woman with whom he had gone on a date after she stopped responding to his messages. In the company's systems, he had access to "years of private conversations with friends over Facebook messenger, events attended, photographs uploaded (including those she had deleted), and posts she had commented or clicked on," the book said. Through the Facebook app the woman had installed on her phone, the book said, the engineer was also able to see her location in real time.

Facebook employees were granted user data access in order to "cut away the red tape that slowed down engineers," the book said.

"There was nothing but the goodwill of the employees themselves to stop them from abusing their access to users' private information," wrote Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, the book's authors. They added that most of the employees who abused their employee privileges to access user data only looked up information, although a few didn't stop there.

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Most of the engineers who took advantage of access to user data were "men who looked up the Facebook profiles of women they were interested in," the book said.

Facebook told Insider it fired employees found to have accessed user data for nonbusiness purposes.

"We've always had zero tolerance for abuse and have fired every single employee ever found to be improperly accessing data," a spokesperson told Insider in a statement. "Since 2015, we've continued to strengthen our employee training, abuse detection, and prevention protocols. We're also continuing to reduce the need for engineers to access some types of data as they work to build and support our services."

A problem that cropped up 'nearly every month'

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, was first made aware of the problem in September 2015, when Alex Stamos, Facebook's chief security officer at the time, raised the issue with him. In a presentation to Zuckerberg and the company's top executives, Stamos said engineers had abused the access "nearly every month," the book said.

At the time, more than 16,000 employees had access to users' private data, the book said. Stamos suggested tightening access to fewer than 5,000 employees and fewer than 100 for particularly sensitive information such as passwords. He proposed requiring employees to submit formal requests for access to private data but received pushback from executives. Zuckerberg said changes on the matter were "a top priority" and tasked Stamos with finding a solution and giving an update in a year, the book said.

But changes that would limit data retention were "antithetical to Mark's DNA," one employee told the book's authors.

The employee added, "At various times in Facebook's history there were paths we could have taken, decisions we could have made, which would have limited, or even cut back on, the user data we were collecting," Frenkel and Kang wrote. "Even before we took those options to him, we knew it wasn't a path he would choose."

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