Facebook Was Fully Aware That Tracking Who People Call and Text You Is Creepy But Did It Anyway

By Kashmir Hill on at

Back in 2015, Facebook had a pickle of a problem. It was time to update the Android version of the Facebook app, and two different groups within Facebook were at odds over what the data grab should be.

The business team wanted to get Bluetooth permissions so it could push ads to people’s phones when they walked into a store. Meanwhile, the growth team, which is responsible for getting more and more people to join Facebook, wanted to get “Read Call Log Permission” so that Facebook could track everyone whom Android user called or texted with in order to make better friend recommendations to them. (Yes, that’s how Facebook may have historically figured out with whom you went on one bad Tinder date and then plopped them into “People You May Know.”) According to internal emails recently seized by the UK Parliament, Facebook’s business team recognized that what the growth team wanted to do was incredibly creepy and was worried it was going to cause a PR disaster.

In a February 4, 2015, email that encapsulates the issue, Facebook Bluetooth Beacon product manager Mike Lebeau is quoted saying that the request for “read call log” permission was a “pretty high-risk thing to do from a PR perspective but it appears that the growth team will charge ahead and do it.”

LeBeau was worried because a “screenshot of the scary Android permissions screen becomes a meme (as it has in the past), propagates around the web, it gets press attention, and enterprising journalists dig into what exactly the new update is requesting.” He suggested a possible headline for those journalists: “Facebook uses new Android update to pry into your private life in ever more terrifying ways - reading your call logs, tracking you in businesses with beacons, etc.” That’s a great and accurate headline. This guy might have a future as a blogger.

At least he called the journalists “enterprising” instead of “meddling kids.”

Then a man named Yul Kwon came to the rescue saying that the growth team had come up with a solution! Thanks to poor Android permission design at the time, there was a way to update the Facebook app to get “Read Call Log” permission without actually asking for it. “Based on their initial testing, it seems that this would allow us to upgrade users without subjecting them to an Android permissions dialog at all,” Kwon is quoted. “It would still be a breaking change, so users would have to click to upgrade, but no permissions dialog screen. They’re trying to finish testing by tomorrow to see if the behavior holds true across different versions of Android.”

Oh yay! Facebook could suck more data from users without scaring them by telling them it was doing it! This is a little surprising coming from Yul Kwon because he is Facebook’s chief ‘privacy sherpa,’ who is supposed to make sure that new products coming out of Facebook are privacy-compliant. I know because I profiled him, in a piece that happened to come out the same day as this email was sent. A member of his team told me their job was to make sure that the things they’re working on “not show up on the front page of the New York Times” because of a privacy blow-up. And I guess that was technically true, though it would be more reassuring if they tried to make sure Facebook didn’t do the creepy things that led to privacy blow-ups rather than keeping users from knowing about the creepy things.

When I asked Facebook about the comments attributed to Kwon, a Facebook spokesperson said that the company “always consider the best way to ask for a person’s permission, whether that’s through a permission dialog set by a mobile operating system like Android or iOS, or a permission we design in the Facebook app.” He wrote in an email that the feature was opt-in within the app and that “this was a discussion about how our decision to launch this opt-in feature would interact with the Android operating system’s own permission screens. It was not about whether to avoid asking people’s permission.”

Thanks to this evasion of permission requests, Facebook users did not realise for years that the company was collecting information about who they called and texted, which would have helped explain to them why their “People You May Know” recommendations were so eerily accurate. It only came to light earlier this year, three years after it started, when a few Facebook users noticed their call and text history in their Facebook files when they downloaded them.

When that was discovered March 2018, Facebook played it off like it wasn’t a big deal. “We introduced this feature for Android users a couple of years ago,” it wrote in a blog post, describing it as an “opt-in feature for people using Messenger or Facebook Lite on Android.”

Facebook continued: “People have to expressly agree to use this feature. If, at any time, they no longer wish to use this feature they can turn it off in settings, or here for Facebook Lite users, and all previously shared call and text history shared via that app is deleted.”

Facebook included a photo of the opt-in screen in its post. In small grey font, it informed people they would be sharing their call and text history.

This particular email was seized by the UK Parliament from the founder of a start-up called Six4Three. It was one of many internal Facebook documents that Six4Three obtained as part of discovery in a lawsuit it’s pursuing against Facebook for banning its Pikinis app, which allowed Facebook users to collect photos of their friends in bikinis. Yuck.

Facebook has a lengthy response to many of the disclosures in the documents including to the discussion in this particular email:

Call and SMS History on Android

This specific feature allows people to opt in to giving Facebook access to their call and text messaging logs in Facebook Lite and Messenger on Android devices. We use this information to do things like make better suggestions for people to call in Messenger and rank contact lists in Messenger and Facebook Lite. After a thorough review in 2018, it became clear that the information is not as useful after about a year. For example, as we use this information to list contacts that are most useful to you, old call history is less useful. You are unlikely to need to call someone who you last called over a year ago compared to a contact you called just last week.

Facebook keeps avoiding in its statements about the call and sms history that the feature is one of the keys to making creepily accurate suggestions in people you may know.

Facebook announced in April that it would delete call logs from more than a year ago. In other words, Facebook realised it wasn’t particularly useful to recommend you friend someone you texted 7 years ago about a couch on Craigslist, and would only do that if you contacted them about a couch within the last year.

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