Facebook’s departing chief information security officer Alex Stamos, whose upcoming exit has been known for months, wrote a note to staff in March amid the Cambridge Analytica data-sharing scandal urging them to reconsider the site’s approach to privacy, BuzzFeed News reported today.
In his note titled “A Difficult Week”, Stamos wrote that the scandal — in which Facebook’s reckless approach to sharing data on users allowed the sketchy political firm to acquire data on somewhere around 87 million users — as well as others such as alleged Russian information warfare on the site were the result of “tens of thousands of small decisions made over the last decade”.
Per BuzzFeed, he also implored his colleagues to please, for the love of God, consider negative feedback when implementing features that pushed the limits of users’ comfort levels, as well as limit its data collection to that actually necessary for the company’s functioning:
“We need to build a user experience that conveys honesty and respect, not one optimised to get people to click yes to giving us more access,” Stamos wrote. “We need to intentionally not collect data where possible, and to keep it only as long as we are using it to serve people.”
“We need to listen to people (including internally) when they tell us a feature is creepy or point out a negative impact we are having in the world,” the note continued. “We need to deprioritize short-term growth and revenue and to explain to Wall Street why that is OK. We need to be willing to pick sides when there are clear moral or humanitarian issues. And we need to be open, honest and transparent about our challenges and what we are doing to fix them.”
Later, Stamos wrote that though he had seen efforts by “many executives” to take more seriously mounting criticism of Facebook in a “new landscape”, responding effectively would require a “bottom-up change in culture”.
News of Stamos’ departure originally came alongside reports that he had urged Facebook management to take more seriously that nation-state actors might abuse the platform to spread misinformation, such as what US intelligence agencies alleged was a sophisticated Russian plan to spread propaganda before the 2016 US elections.
For months, the site tried to downplay the Russian effort on Facebook — with former Facebook data analyst Tavis McGinn telling The New York Times the brush-off was in part to protect the image of executives such as CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.
In the memo, Stamos pushed back against media coverage suggesting that he and management had an adversarial relationship in which he was the hero, writing that while he “had passionate discussions with other execs”, “the more I’m narratively built up, the further the media eventually gets to pull me down (which they will also frame as bad for Facebook)”.
He also wrote that a good-guys-bad-guys narrative “absolves us of the hard things we have to do to win back the world’s trust”.
Stamos’ note could easily be viewed as a prelude to the aggressive apology tour the company and Zuckerberg himself launched this year. That’s entailed endless promises of systemic change and some increased transparency, but also tweaks around the margins mixed with a very obvious longing that everyone just please move on from this mess already.
Though markets already believe the site intends to tackle user concerns about privacy and propaganda seriously, judging by the company’s booming value, Facebook still faces multiple US federal investigations into its handling of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and possible record fines.
“You just had the company go through the worst PR you could imagine for more than a year, and yet very few people have left the platform except to go to (Facebook-owned) Instagram,” Macquarie Group analyst Ben Schachter told Wired. “That tells you that people are either addicted or find huge utility out of what Facebook provides.”
However, Wired continued that what the stock market finds appealing is also how much of Facebook’s business practices have remained unchanged despite the scandals:
Schachter added that his optimism is driven by what Facebook didn’t do post-Cambridge Analytica as much as what it is doing. “We were worried that they were going to implement structural changes to the business” that would dampen revenue, he said. “Would they stop allowing targeted ads? Would they leave the advertising business altogether and go to a subscription model? The answer turned out to be no.”
Stamos’ full memo is available at Buzzfeed News.