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Facebook emails reveal discussions over call log consent

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Facebook employees discussed how to minimise the amount of consent needed to collect user data, according to the latest tranche of emails released by the UK parliament relating to the company’s mass collection of call and text logs.

Since 2015, the social network has collected communications metadata from users who install its app on Android phones. In March this year that logging became public when users discovered details of their communications as they downloaded their personal data using new tools created to comply with the EU’s general data protection regulation (GDPR).

Facebook has always maintained that it only collected data from users who opted in, but in a tranche of internal emails obtained as part of a lawsuit against the company and released by the digital, culture, media and sport committee, employees discuss how to minimise the amount of consent they would need to ask for to begin the collection.

“The growth team is planning on shipping a permissions update on Android at the end of this month,” Michael LeBeau, then a project manager at the company, wrote in an email sent in February 2015. The growth team is in charge of encouraging more people to join Facebook and encouraging those who have already signed up to use it more.

“They are going to include the ‘read call log’ permission … for a feature that lets you continuously upload your SMS and call log history to Facebook,” he continued. “This is a pretty high-risk thing to do from a PR perspective but it appears that the growth team will charge ahead and do it … We think the risk of PR fallout here is high.

“Screenshot of the scary Android permissions screen becomes a meme, propagates around the web, it gets press attention and 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’.”

Yul Kwon, one of the company’s “privacy sherpas”, whose job was to make sure Facebook did not “set off any privacy dynamite”, replied to LeBeau with an alternative plan: “The growth team is now exploring a path where we only request read call log permission, and hold off on requesting on any other permissions for now.

“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. It would still be a breaking change, so users would have to click to upgrade, but no permissions dialog screen.”

Because of the changes, when Facebook did begin asking for permission inside the app, it was able to write its own request rather than using the standard language of Google’s Android operating system.

In its request, it did not mention call logs at all, instead asking users if they wanted to “send and receive SMS inside messenger”, on a request box without a “no” button. Instead, the two options were a blue button labelled “OK” or a greyed-out link to “Settings”.

Since many users had already given Facebook the technical capability to do so when they installed the app, if they hit OK it was the last they knew about the call and text logging – until they rediscovered the logs in March of this year.

In a statement released on Wednesday, Facebook said: “The feature is opt-in for users and we ask for people’s permission before enabling. 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.

“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. This was not a discussion about avoiding asking people for permission.”



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