NY AG opens investigation into Facebook over email contact collection

1.5 million users' contacts collected

By Sara O'Brien, CNN Business
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The New York State attorney general has opened an investigation into Facebook's unauthorized collection of 1.5 million users' email contacts.

Last week, Facebook acknowledged that it collected up to 1.5 million users' email contacts without their consent. The company said that email contact lists had been "unintentionally" uploaded to Facebook following a design change in 2016, and that it was now in the process of deleting them. The practice was first reported on by Business Insider.

"It is time Facebook is held accountable for how it handles consumers' personal information," said New York State Attorney General Letitia James in an announcement about the investigation. James called this incident the "latest demonstration that Facebook does not take seriously its role in protecting our personal information."

While Facebook has admitted how many address books were involved, the attorney general's office noted that it's not clear how many contacts were collected and that it could number into the hundreds of millions, depending on how many contacts an individual has.

Facebook said last week that it did not realize this collection was happening until earlier this month, when it stopped offering email password verification as an option for people signing up to Facebook for the first time.

While email verification is a standard practice for many companies, Facebook had requested that some users provide the password to their personal email accounts.

The company has not had a good track record when it comes to privacy issues in recent years, and those issues increasingly are going from public relations problems to financial and legal ones.

The latest reminder: Facebook said it expects that an ongoing investigation by the Federal Trade Commission over privacy issues could result in fines ranging from $3 billion to $5 billion. That would be the first financial penalty for Facebook in the US since the Cambridge Analytica scandal surfaced in March, and the FTC's largest penalty against a technology company.

In response to the attorney general's investigation, a Facebook spokesperson said the company is "in touch with the New York State attorney general's office and are responding to their questions on this matter."

-- CNN's Athena Jones contributed to this report.

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