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Facebook knew Android call-scraping would be ‘high-risk,’ new documents reveal

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Internal emails show Facebook weighing the privacy risks of collecting call records — then going ahead anyway

Illustration by James Bareham / The Verge

In March, many Android users were shocked to discover that Facebook had been collecting a record of their call and SMS history, as revealed by the company’s data download tool. Now, internal emails released by the UK Parliament show how the decision was made internally. According to the emails, developers knew the data was sensitive, but they still pushed to collect it as a way of expanding Facebook’s reach.

The emails show Facebook’s growth team looking to call log data as a way to improve Facebook’s algorithms as well as to locate new contacts through the “People You May Know” feature. Notably, the project manager recognized it as “a pretty high-risk thing to do from a PR perspective,” but that risk seems to have been overwhelmed by the potential user growth.

Initially, the feature was intended to require users to opt in, typically through an in-app pop-up dialog box. But as developers looked for ways to get users signed up, it became clear that Android’s data permissions could be manipulated to automatically enroll users if the new feature was deployed in a certain way.

In another email chain, the group developing the feature seems to see the Android permissions screen as a point of unnecessary friction, to be avoided if possible. When testing revealed that call logs could be collected without a permissions dialog, that option seems to have been obviously preferable to developers.

“Based on our initial testing,” one developer wrote, “it seems that this would allow us to upgrade users without subjecting them to an Android permissions dialog at all.”

After the story broke in March, Facebook insisted that it had not collected any call logs without permission, and that any affected users had opted in to the feature. This contradicted the experience of many Facebook users, who reported installing Messenger with the bare minimum of permissions and nonetheless having logs collected.

Facebook’s People You May Know feature has been the source of significant controversy for the company, often identifying connections through location or other obscure data sources. Most notably, the feature inspired Facebook to create so-called “shadow profiles” for contacts who haven’t signed up for Facebook, a practice some have criticized as overly aggressive.

Reached for comment, Facebook said it stood by its original statement. “We of course discuss the options of keeping, removing, or changing features we offer,” a representative said. “This specific feature allows people to opt into 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 ranking contact lists in Messenger and Facebook Lite.”

Update 12:50PM ET: Updated to include further comment from Facebook.