First Contact

What Kept Alex Stamos Up at Night as Facebook’s Security Chief

Alex Stamos spent three years as Facebook’s chief security officer. In addition to information security issues, he also oversaw the company’s Child Safety Investigations team. During that time he had to deal with some of the darkest the Internet has to offer.

He tells Laurie Segall how that darkness sometimes followed him home. And how he’s changed since leaving Facebook.

Read an edited transcript below, or listen to the full interview on the First Contact podcast.

One of my kids asked, “Dad, is this the Russians?” And I realized I was bringing [home] perhaps a little too much.

Alex Stamos: We just had a power outage in our neighborhood. And one of my kids asked, “Dad, is this the Russians?” And I realized I was bringing [home] perhaps a little too much.

You’re never really off, right? So even if I got home at 7:00 PM, the odds of having two conference calls that night were pretty good. And so they would overhear a lot more than I knew. Especially, that kind of intense summer of 2017 when we were investigating these issues and had yet to announce it. And they were kind of on the knife’s edge of what’s our level of responsibility here. What do we tell the world? How do we tell the world?

Laurie Segall: Didn’t you say you were like waking up in the middle of the night? I mean like you take that home.

Alex Stamos: …One of the interesting things about that kind of job is you’re just dealing with the downsides of your products. So Silicon Valley is kind of overall…[this] feeling of limitless possibility. Of technology is good, technology brings wonder into people’s lives…And then you’ve got me and my team and a couple of other teams at Facebook who just wallow in misery all day. Dealing with not just disinformation, but people trying to attack the platform, people trying to send malware to each other, defraud each other, to sexually abuse children, to perform human trafficking, terrorists who are trying to use the platform to either celebrate, or organize terrorist attacks…And so it separates you a little bit from the rest of the company. Because the rest of the company is about, “We’re making the world open and connected. And we’re bringing them together.”…And then you’re the person that comes in as a Debbie Downer of like, “Well if another 100 million people use our product, this is how much child exploitation is gonna go up.” And everybody’s kind of like, “Oh my God, who invited Stamos to this meeting?” I got that a lot.

…And so this cloud follows you and it does follow you home, right? The thing that really followed me home was the child stuff. So I had two areas of responsibility. One was the traditional information security. People trying to break into Facebook, steal data, steal money, that kind of stuff. But then we also had the safety, responsibility and that included a dedicated Child Safety Investigations team that had some incredible, very dedicated, very skilled people that I was very lucky to work with. But…It’s very hard to do that during the day and then to go home and hug your kids, right?

To see the incredible depths of depravity and horribleness that happen in the rest of the world and then go home and your kids are like, “Hey Daddy. How’s it going?” Like it’s just very hard not to bring that with you. And so that’s the kind of thing that makes you wake up at 3:00 AM and check your phone.

It took me about a year before I could sleep through the night without worrying that if my phone vibrated, that somebody had died, or there was, you know, an attack that could be disastrous for our users.

Laurie Segall: Did your children ever sense anything? Did they ever say anything?

Alex Stamos: Yeah. I think they’ve sensed the difference since then. My son, my eldest who’s 12, said something along the lines of, “Dad, you’re a lot happier now.”

Laurie Segall: That’s good.

Alex Stamos: I cried when he said that. It’s tough to deal with that kind of stuff, but it’s also important and I feel a little bit of a failure for not being able to do more of it. My hope is I can still have impact, even though I’m not directly putting my hands on those problems now.