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Leaked Facebook emails might prove Zuckerberg knew about questionable privacy practices

Published Jun 13th, 2019 10:12AM EDT
FTC vs. Facebook
Image: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/Shutterstock

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Facebook is under investigation due to policies related to user privacy. Shocking, right? And this time around, things aren’t looking very good for the company, which is already willing to settle the matter by paying a huge penalty. A new report shows that Facebook is worried that internal email exchanges might reveal Mark Zuckerberg was aware of the company’s questionable privacy practices at a time when the company should have made user privacy a priority.

While The Wall Street Journal did not actually provide examples from the emails in question, the paper says it has seen leaked emails that connect Zuckerberg to Facebook’s questionable privacy practices:

Within the company, the unearthing of the emails in the process of responding to a continuing federal privacy investigation has raised concerns that they would be harmful to Facebook—at least from a public-relations standpoint—if they were to become public, one of the people said.

The emails might be the reason why Facebook is looking to settle the FTC investigation swiftly, and why it’s ready to pay north of $5 billion as part of the settlement. Facebook and FTC settled a similar case back in 2012 when the social network agreed to protect user privacy better and not share any user data without explicit permission. Since then, the huge Cambridge Analytica privacy breach happened, and the FTC started this new probe.

The emails in question were reportedly sent around 2012, following the FTC’s consent decree, and they seem to suggest that Zuckerberg and other senior execs didn’t make complying with the FTC order a priority. People familiar with the matter told The Journal that some of the internal exchanges show “Facebook grappling with gray areas in how it should address privacy under the consent order, with Mr. Zuckerberg closely involved.”

The report highlights a particular email exchange from April 2012 in which Zuckerberg asked employees about an app that said it could build a database with information about tens of millions of Facebook users, and then share that information with others, regardless of the Facebook privacy settings of those users. The CEO wanted to know whether it was possible to do that and whether Facebook should stop developers from using that data. The conversation showed that several developers could indeed pull it off, and that it was a complicated issue. The email chain didn’t include any suggestions that Facebook should investigate the matter, although that app was eventually suspended. The exchange happened after the FTC’s consent decree was announced, but before it went into effect, and it has caught the attention of regulators in light of the new investigation.

It’s unclear how the FTC will go forward with the case, and whether it’ll sue Facebook in court. A settlement would allow for more significant penalties. Facebook obviously might not want to go to trial to prevent these compromising emails from being made public.

Facebook’s official comment in response to The Journal follows below:

We have fully cooperated with the FTC’s investigation to date and provided tens of thousands of documents, emails, and files. We are continuing to work with them and hope to bring this matter to an appropriate resolution. At no point did Mark or any other Facebook employee knowingly violate the company’s obligations under the FTC consent order nor do any emails exist that indicate they did.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.