Just as Facebook was hoping the Cambridge Analytica debacle was becoming yesterday’s news, a fresh controversy regarding data collection hit the social network. This time it’s about the call and SMS data of Android users.
Late on Friday, Ars Technica reported that Facebook had been scraping call and SMS data for years on Android phones. The discovery was made by Dylan McKay when he downloaded his own Facebook data and discovered his entire call history was there. It wasn’t long before lots of people started confirming the same data records existed in their Facebook data downloads.
For calls, the data collected includes the type of call (outgoing, incoming, missed), the day, date, and time of the call, the call duration, the name of the person, and a number label. It’s a similar set of data for text messages. In McKay’s case, he discovered “my entire call history with my partner’s mum” as well an historical record of every contact on his phone.
Downloaded my facebook data as a ZIP file
Somehow it has my entire call history with my partner’s mum pic.twitter.com/CIRUguf4vD
— Dylan McKay (@dylanmckaynz) March 21, 2018
Unlike with Cambridge Analytica, Facebook isn’t apologizing about this data collection. Instead, the social network created a page called Fact Check: Your Call and SMS History, which explains how and why this data is being collected. One thing Facebook makes very clear as part of this post is the fact we are giving the company permission to collect the data.
According to Facebook, anyone who signs up for Messenger or Facebook Lite on Android, or logs into those services using an Android device, is presented with the option to “continuously upload your contacts as well as your call and text history.” By opting to do this, it’s apparently easier to “find and stay connected with the people you care about, and provides you with a better experience across Facebook.”
In Messenger, you have three options: turn it on, choose to “learn more,” or “not now.” In Facebook Lite, you can either turn it on or skip the feature. In both cases, choosing not to share the data doesn’t stop the services working. It’s also possible to turn the data collection off at any time in settings.
As far as Facebook is concerned, it isn’t doing anything wrong here. You are asked to share your data and can refuse. However, Ars Technica has since confirmed with several users who shared their data that the real-world experience differs to what Facebook states happens. Call and SMS data was apparently logged when no permission was asked for or given, with records going back as far as 2015. The conclusion seems to be that the opt-in was the default and never presented as a separate choice.
Although helpful, Facebook’s fact check page doesn’t answer all the of questions being asked and therefore this fresh controversy won’t disappear until they do. Facebook also makes it clear your data is stored securely, the content of your calls and texts isn’t recorded, and this particular information isn’t sold to third parties.