MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Facebook had a big day yesterday. In one breath, it acknowledged that 87 million people may have had their personal data shared improperly with the political firm Cambridge Analytica. Facebook also announced some changes to its data-sharing practices. All this comes a week before CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is set to testify before multiple congressional committees here in Washington. Joining us to talk about Facebook's new policies, Shira Ovide. She's a tech columnist for Bloomberg. Hey there.
SHIRA OVIDE: Hello.
KELLY: So Facebook says it's going to do some things differently - protect people's data better. Walk me through the, you know, top one or two significant changes as you see them.
OVIDE: Right, so I think the broad category of changes Facebook made was to change the relationship with the outside companies - like "Words With Friends" or like Tinder - that mesh with your Facebook account.
KELLY: This is things like, when I want to order dinner from some online company, and they say, do you want to open an account with us, or do you want to just login through Facebook?
OVIDE: That's exactly it.
KELLY: Got it. OK.
OVIDE: And Facebook has a number of these outside companies that they've agreed to allow to use your Facebook account details to login. And Facebook now says they're going to tighten the rules around that. And they're going to decide on a case-by-case basis when to allow those outside companies to let you use your Facebook login, the idea being that that will restrict the number of companies that have visibility into all of the data that you have on Facebook.
KELLY: This question of whether Facebook will be a good arbiter in deciding which companies to grant access to our personal information - I think there are a lot of legitimate questions being raised about that right now.
OVIDE: I agree. That's a big concern of mine as well that - look, in a sense, Facebook is giving itself more responsibility and more power. We've seen over the last 18 months that Facebook is not always a responsible steward of information and does not always make good decisions about what relationships companies should have with Facebook users.
KELLY: And you said two big changes. What's the other one?
OVIDE: Facebook has this feature called reverse look-up that lets you use somebody's telephone number or email address to find them on Facebook. But Facebook said that companies abuse that feature basically to do wholesale scraping of user information. And the company said on Wednesday that it found probably all of Facebook's two-billion-plus users have had their accounts scraped in that way, using the reverse look-up feature. So it's turning it off.
KELLY: I mean, you've reported on Facebook for a long time. How significant are these changes? How far do they go in addressing all of these questions that have been raised about protecting our data?
OVIDE: So I would say it matters to a point. What Facebook hasn't done is really restrict or limit the amount of data that Facebook itself collects about people. It is putting some locks on what outsiders can do, and that's good. But Facebook still collects reams of data about you from not just what you do on Facebook but from what you do in the real world - from purchases that you make, for example, from other websites that you visit all over the Internet. So Facebook really hasn't committed to limiting much at all that kind of information that Facebook itself is collecting.
KELLY: Well, so then how reassured should we be by these changes? How much safer is our data on Facebook than it was a week ago before these changes or say a year ago?
OVIDE: I do think the company has learned a lesson. Again, though, the company's whole business model and ethos is built around open communication, widespread data collection and using that data to target people based on their interests or activities.
KELLY: That's the inherent tension here, right?
OVIDE: Correct. And it's one of the best businesses ever built on the Internet, but it may also be an indefensible business.
KELLY: Bloomberg tech columnist Shira Ovide, thanks so much.
OVIDE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.