Emails: Facebook knew col­lec­tion of An­droid call data was ‘high-risk’

Com­pany de­nies users weren’t given choice of hav­ing calls, texts col­lected

The Mercury News Weekend - - BUSINESS - By Levi Su­ma­gaysay lsuma­[email protected] ba­yare­anews­group.com

Ear­lier this year, Facebook was re­ported to be col­lect­ing call data from An­droid users without their per­mis­sion. Now, in­ter­nal doc­u­ments re­leased by British law­mak­ers show what Facebook was think­ing about when it de­cided to do so: growth.

“This is a pretty high­risk thing to do from a PR per­spec­tive but it ap- pears that the growth team will charge ahead and do it,” reads one en­gi­neer’s email from Fe­bru­ary 2015.

The emails also in­clude dis­cus­sion about whether Facebook users should have to opt in to have their An­droid calls and texts logged by the com­pany.

An­other em­ployee wrote: “Based on (the growth team’s) ini­tial test­ing, it seems that this would al­low us to upgrade users without sub­ject­ing them to an An­droid per­mis­sions di­a­log at all.”

The email thread also in­cluded one Facebook em­ployee mus­ing about pos­si­ble neg­a­tive press cov­er­age re­gard­ing a re­lated An­droid fea­ture that the com­pany wanted to roll out: “en­ter­pris­ing jour­nal­ists dig into what ex­actly the new up­date is re­quest­ing, then write sto­ries about ‘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.’ ”

In a Wed­nes­day blog post, Facebook ad­dressed the con­tents of the emails about An­droid, con­tin­u­ing to deny that An­droid users were not given the op­tion to opt in, although some users have said their calls were logged without their per­mis­sion:

“The fea­ture is opt in for users and we ask for peo­ple’s per­mis­sion be­fore en­abling,” Facebook said. “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.”

Facebook said the “fea­ture” is for peo­ple who use Facebook Lite and Mes­sen­ger so it can sug­gest peo­ple to call in Mes­sen­ger, or rank con­tact lists.

“With this fea­ture, we asked for per­mis­sion in­side the Facebook Mes­sen­ger app, and 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,” the com­pany added. “This was not a dis­cus­sion about avoid­ing ask­ing peo­ple for per­mis­sion.”

Facebook’s blog post also ex­plained nu­mer­ous other con­tro­ver­sial is­sues raised by 250 pages of doc­u­ments that were ob­tained by a British par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee late last month, and re- leased pub­licly this week. The doc­u­ments are part of a law­suit against Facebook by app de­vel­oper Six4Three, and are un­der seal in the United States.

But British law­mak­ers, frus­trated by Facebook CEO Mark Zucker­berg’s re­peated re­fusals to ap­pear be­fore them to an­swer ques­tions about the Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica scan­dal, plus Rus­sians’ use of the so­cial net­work to spread false in­for­ma­tion, seized the doc­u­ments re­cently in what they ac­knowl­edged was an “un­prece­dented” move.

The in­ter­nal emails give a peek into Zucker­berg and his em­ploy­ees’ at­ti­tudes, in­clud­ing how a de­ci­sion by Zucker­berg paved the way for po­lit­i­cal data con­sult­ing firm Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica to ac­cess the per­sonal in­for­ma­tion of up to 87 mil­lion Facebook users without their per­mis­sion. Among other things, that in­for­ma­tion was used early in the pres- iden­tial cam­paign of Don­ald Trump.

“I think we leak info to de­vel­op­ers, but I just can’t think of any in­stances where that data has leaked from de­vel­oper to de­vel­oper and caused a real is­sue for us,” Zucker­berg said in one email.

In a post on his Facebook page Wed­nes­day, Zucker­berg said he wanted to give more con­text to the emails. “In 2014, to pre­vent abu­sive apps, we an­nounced that we were chang­ing the en­tire plat­form to dra­mat­i­cally limit the data apps could ac­cess,” he said.

He also tried to dis­pel the no­tion that the emails show he and his team only cared about money and grow­ing the com­pany.

“Like any or­ga­ni­za­tion, we had a lot of in­ter­nal dis­cus­sion and peo­ple raised dif­fer­ent ideas,” Zucker­berg said.

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