A supposed anonymous interview with a Facebook employee is generating some buzz around the web, after some apparently controversial information was spilled. While some blogs are saying that the interview provides new “revelations“, nothing in the article came as a surprise to us. Is this information true or false and how much of it really comes as a surprise? We’ll break down all the facts (as we understand them).
Before jumping into our interpretation of the article we should state that Facebook’s PR team is dismissing this interview as bunk. Larry Yu told CNet news, “This piece contains the kind of inaccuracies and misrepresentations you would expect from something sourced ‘anonymously,’ and we’ll leave it at that.” It’s an easy way for Facebook to try to blow this off but whether or not the information was true, nothing controversial is really revealed.
Facebook Has 100 Million More User Accounts Than They Publicly Report
When Facebook reports their numbers to the press on a periodical basis they state the number of monthly active users. The most recent number, 350 million users, was announced back in December. That number is the number of users who have been active at some point over the past 30 days. However Facebook has many more accounts in their system which haven’t had any activity in the past 30 days.
This isn’t the first time that a discrepancy in user accounts at Facebook was reported. Only a few months prior to this anonymous interview, Facebook reported that they had 200 million users, however Facebook developer Wei Zhu accidentally stated that they had upwards of 280 million accounts at the time. This 80 million user difference is identical to the 80 million user difference in the anonymous interview.
This discrepancy is a result of fake accounts, scammers, disabled accounts, and the rare user who doesn’t log back into the site ever. So does this 80 million user discrepancy really matter? Nope. Most internet companies post internal metrics and the most important ones are daily active users and monthly active users. Facebook is famous for being able to maintain a close to 50 percent daily active user level, meaning that approximately 175 million users are logging into the site daily.
A Master Account Where Engineers Can View Your Profile
Facebook was known for having a master account password in which select employees were able to view information about any user in the system. Even if an employee didn’t know the “master password” engineers could supposedly access information via the database according to the anonymous employee. So is this information accurate? We believe so, but it isn’t really that big of a deal … we’ll explain why.
As Companies Grow In Size, Information Becomes More Protected
Prior to going public, Google’s intranet had a page which displayed how much ad revenue was being generated through their AdWords system on a daily basis. Eventually that page became restricted, however it’s one instance of a growing company, making information which should be relatively private, accessible to employees. Facebook had a less protected system when it was smaller.
Back in 2007 we reported about a Facebook security breach which one source inaccurately told us would result in a lawsuit. While the lawsuit was not accurate, Facebook employees were supposedly able to access much of the user information in the system. During an off record conversation in Washington, D.C., Chris Kelly, the company’s Chief Privacy Officer told me that user information was no longer widely accessible.
Whether or not that was the case, it’s clear that Facebook has become increasingly strict with how employees access user account data. Any employee who decides to randomly browse through user accounts however is risking being fired. As the anonymous employee is quoted:
I’m not sure when exactly it was deprecated, but we did have a master password at one point where you could type in any user’s user ID, and then the password. I’m not going to give you the exact password, but with upper and lower case, symbols, numbers, all of the above, it spelled out ‘Chuck Norris,’ more or less. It was pretty fantastic.
As the employee continues to tell Phil Wong of Rumpus, Facebook takes security pretty seriously.
Rumpus: So the master password is basically irrelevant.
Rumpus: It’s just for style.
Employee: Right. But it’s no longer in use. Like I alluded to, we’ve cracked down on this lately, but it has been replaced by a pretty cool tool. If I visited your profile, for example, on our closed network, there’s a ‘switch login’ button. I literally just click it, explain why I’m logging in as you, click ‘OK,’ and I’m you. You can do it as long as you have an explanation, because you’d better be able to back it up. For example, if you’re investigating a compromised account, you have to actually be able to log into that account.
Rumpus: Are your managers really on your ass about it every time you log in as someone else?
Employee: No, but if it comes up, you’d better be able to justify it. Or you will be fired.
Rumpus: I would imagine they take this -
Employee: Pretty seriously. I don’t really fuck around, at all.
While some engineers and employees focused on user security need access to user accounts, Facebook takes access to user accounts extremely seriously. Mess with user accounts and you’ll be fired.
Facebook Tracks Your Usage To Determine Strength Of Relationships
It’s pretty widely known that Facebook collects data about your usage to determine who your closest friends are. That information is used to generate the automatically filtered news feed. As the anonymous Facebook employee states, “We track everything. Every photo you view, every person you’re tagged with, every wall-post you make, and so forth.” While some publications think it isn’t clear that Facebook is tracking it, it’s pretty widely known that this data is used to improve the user experience.
Facebook collects an immense amount of data in order to improve news feed story relevance among other things. Is this scary or misleading? I don’t think so. Information is critical to building a useful product. Just as Google tracks your search history among other things, Facebook tracks your usage to improve the overall experience. The bottom line is this: if you don’t want Facebook collecting information about you, don’t give it to them.
While Facebook alludes to the idea that some of the information in this anonymous employee interview is factually inaccurate, nothing in it is actually that controversial. It’s simply a casual conversation about some of the inner workings of Facebook. Facebook has a team of highly skilled engineers that are working on some extremely challenging problems. If you were looking for some damaging evidence against Facebook’s misuse of user information or signs that they are becoming “Big Brother”, you should keep on hunting because the interview published by Rumpus doesn’t really present anything new or damaging.
Image via Ferdy On Films