Facebook Denies Secret Android Metadata Collection

Facebook’s torrid week continues after the firm was forced to deny media reports that it has for years now, surreptitiously collected call and text data from Android phones.

The claim has come after users began noticing the amount of data Facebook held on them, when they sought to delete their Facebook accounts in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Users have discovered for example that Facebook has collected logs of incoming and outgoing calls and SMS messages from Android phones, dating back years.

Data Harvesting

Facebook has been stung by #deletefacebook movement, which gained traction after the revelations last week that the personal information of 50 million Facebook users, had been shared without their consent with the analytics firm Cambridge Analytica.

This has prompted some Facebook users, including Telsa and Elon Musk, to delete their Facebook accounts.

When a user seeks to delete their Facebook account, the social network rather prompts them to deactivate their account, which still leaves all personal data on the company’s servers.

But if a user insists on permanently deleting their account, Facebook suggests: “You may want to download a copy of your info from Facebook.”

This data dump then reveals how much personal data Facebook has harvested.

Last week a New Zealand man Dylan McKay was looking through the data Facebook had collected from him in an archive he had pulled down from the social networking site.

Users can do the same thing here, and can download gathered personal data in a Zip file.

While scanning the information McKay was concerned that Facebook had gathered about two years’ worth of phone call metadata from his Android phone, including names, phone numbers, and the length of each call made or received.

Facebook it seems had collected “metadata about every text message I’ve ever received or sent,” tweeted McKay.

Others who have downloaded their archive have discovered the same thing.

Facebook: “Opt In”

Facebook rushed to address the fresh data concern, and issue the following blog post on the matter.

The social media site said that when the feature is enabled by the user and contact information is uploaded, Facebook can then use the given data when a call or text was made or received with Facebook Lite and Facebook Messenger services.

The data is apparently not sold to third parties.

“You may have seen some recent reports that Facebook has been logging people’s call and SMS (text) history without their permission,” wrote Facebook. “This is not the case.”

“Call and text history logging is part of an opt-in feature for people using Messenger or Facebook Lite on Android,” it said. “This helps you find and stay connected with the people you care about, and provides you with a better experience across Facebook. People have to expressly agree to use this feature. If, at any time, they no longer wish to use this feature they can turn it off in settings, or here for Facebook Lite users, and all previously shared call and text history shared via that app is deleted.”

Essentially, it seems that if a Facebook user using an Android device before Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean), had granted permission to read the phone contacts during Facebook’s installation, this permission also gave Facebook permission to access call and message logs by default.

It should be noted that later versions of Android denied permission to access this data, and Apple iOS has never allowed Facebook to access this metadata.

Little Trust

The latest scandal couldn’t come at a worse time for the company.

Billions of dollars have already been wiped off the value of the Facebook, and at the weekend Facebook ran newspaper adverts across America to apologise for the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Meanwhile a Reuters survey has found that fewer than half of Americans trust Facebook to obey US privacy laws.

The same survey also found that fewer Americans trust Facebook than other tech companies that gather user data, such as Apple, Alphabet’s Google, Amazon.com, Microsoft and Yahoo.

How much do you know about privacy? Try our quiz!

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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