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Documents reveal Facebook scraped call and text data without user permission

After the big Cambridge Analytica fiasco, Facebook is obviously still in damage-control mode, trying its best to clean up its platform and assure its 2 billion-strong user base that it is improving its data security practices.

While millions of people have gone on to update their privacy settings and review their apps, if not deactivate or delete Facebook altogether, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has promised to rethink how Facebook is handling user privacy.

I’m sure you know that Facebook has had a rough year. The social media giant was embroiled in many controversies that are causing serious privacy concerns.

Now, with all the ongoing investigations and inquests regarding Facebook data collecting practices, more details about its internal decision-making is coming into light.

Growth above everything else?

Internal documents released by the British Parliament have revealed how Facebook decided to go ahead and push through with the collection of call and text logs on Android gadgets without a user’s permission.

According to the documents, way back in 2015, Facebook’s “growth team” (the group responsible for getting more people to sign up for Facebook) was planning on shipping a new feature within the Facebook Android app that read call log data. This data can then be used for improving Facebook’s algorithms and “People You May Know” friend suggestions.

Ever wondered why Facebook’s friend suggestions can be so eerily accurate? Well, among other things, that’s its algorithms at work and it may include data from your phone’s call and text logs plus your contacts list.

According to the internal emails, Facebook’s growth team initially thought about pushing the feature by triggering an Android’s gadget’s permission “opt-in” dialog box. Given the concern about Facebook’s data collection (yep, even in 2015), the team acknowledged that this can be a high-risk PR move but they were planning on pushing it anyway.

However, later emails revealed that the team eventually explored for ways to sneak in the feature without triggering the Android permission dialog prompt at all. In light of the hoopla that may be caused by the new “read call log” permissions needed by the Facebook Android app, the team decided that that was the best way to implement it.

Facebook finds a way

It turns out, Facebook’s growth team found a way to exploit Android’s weak permission design (at that time) and roll out the “read call log” update to the Facebook app without triggering a permission dialog box.

“Based on their initial testing,” a Facebook growth team member wrote, “it seems this would allow us to upgrade users without subjecting them to an Android permissions dialog at all.”

If you can recall, Facebook denied earlier this year that it is collecting call and text logs of Android users without their permission.

Click here to read the 250-page summary of the internal documents collected by the UK Parliament.

Facebook’s response

In an official statement from Facebook in response to the internal documents, the social media giant said that the “Call and SMS history” feature is opt-in for users and the app actually asks for a person’s permission before being enabled, either by a system’s default permission dialog box or in this case, an opt-in feature within the Facebook app itself.

“The feature is opt-in for users and we ask for people’s permission before enabling,” Facebook wrote in the statement. “We 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.

To be fair, these emails were from 2015 and many things have happened between then and now. As with any Facebook feature, they come and go and change all the time. With all the privacy concerns surrounding Facebook right now, it’s in its best interest to clean up its act regarding overly aggressive app permissions and data collection, don’t you think?

Click here to read Facebook’s entire official response.

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