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Facebook Inc.’s investigation into outsiders’ handling of its users’ information will help identify and deter bad actors but won’t be able to uncover where all the data ended up and how it is being deployed, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday.
Facebook will examine tens of thousands of apps that collected large amounts of user data, an effort that may cost “many millions of dollars,” Mr. Zuckerberg said in an interview.
Facebook will dispatch auditors to analyze the servers of developers who scooped up a suspicious amount of data, and interrogate them about their business practices. It isn’t clear how many apps will need audits—which Facebook expects will be most expensive part of the process—and Facebook still doesn’t know whether its investigation will take a matter of months or longer to complete, Mr. Zuckerberg said.
“Like any security precaution, it’s not that this is a bulletproof solve,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “It’s not that any process by itself is ever going to find every single thing,” but it will be a strong deterrent to stop developers who are “doing bad things” and help Facebook track down what users’ data was mishandled, he added.
“The real point of what we’re trying to do is to make it a lot harder for anybody to misuse the data,” he said.
The comments underscore the challenge confronting Facebook as it seeks to quell a controversy that has knocked its stock price lower and triggered renewed calls for governments to better regulate technology businesses that hold mountains of information about their users. It is notoriously difficult to track down and secure personal information once it has been unleashed online, experts and former Facebook employees say.
Mr. Zuckerberg reiterated his openness to regulation requiring more disclosure about online advertising—an area Facebook is already working on.
“There’s no reason why the internet advertising industry should have a lower transparency standard than print or TV ads,” he said. But he didn’t say other specific areas where Facebook would be open to more regulation.
Over the past 18 months, Facebook has promised to hire more content moderators and security experts to help the company handle its various challenges. Mr. Zuckerberg said the company’s artificial intelligence tools will help Facebook bolster its human-review process.
“Because of the tools that we have…we can get leverage and we hire 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 people and that is a reasonable amount,” he said.
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Facebook’s current crisis began last Friday, when it said it was looking into reports that data-analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, which worked with the Trump campaign in 2016, retained Facebook user data obtained by Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge, years after the parties certified to Facebook that the records had been expunged.
Mr. Kogan collected the data by creating a personality-quiz app in 2013 that plugged directly into Facebook’s platform.
At the time, the social-media company’s platform allowed outsiders access to extensive data about its users as well as their Facebook connections. By 2015, Facebook had severely restricted the amount of data available to outsiders, but by then app developers like Mr. Kogan already had data about Facebook users in hand.
It isn’t clear how many other developers might have done the same.
Many of the offending apps may no longer exist and it is hard to pin down how much of the data they collected was copied or distributed or where those copies might exist.
Mr. Zuckerberg said, internally, company officials discussed whether “there are enough trained audit teams in the world to go audit the number of apps that were using our platform.”
Write to Deepa Seetharaman at Deepa.Seetharaman@wsj.com
Appeared in the March 23, 2018, print edition as ‘Zuckerberg Sees Limits To Probe at Facebook.’