The latest can of worms to pop open for Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ: FB) appears to have more than just one big worm. The latest comes from a report at Ars Technica that Facebook has been collecting data on Android user phone calls and text messages in its Messenger app since 2015.
The key word here, at least from Facebook’s point of view, is “secretly.” In a reply to the Ars Technica story, Facebook wrote a blog post denying the report.
Here’s how the Facebook reply begins:
You may have seen some recent reports that Facebook has been logging people’s call and SMS (text) history without their permission
This is not the case.
The company’s blog post then continues at some length to explain what Facebook claims is the case. According to the company, if you use the Messenger or Facebook Lite app on an Android device, call and text history logging is “part of an opt-in feature” and always has been. The “feature,” says Facebook, “helps you find and stay connected with the people you care about, and provides you with a better experience across Facebook.” If you ultimately decide to opt-out, you can do so and “all previously shared call and text history shared via that app is deleted.”
Ars Technica’s Sean Gallagher reviewed his experience with his own Android devices:
[A] review of my Google Play data confirms that Messenger was never installed on the Android devices I used. Facebook was installed on a Nexus tablet I used and on the Blackphone 2 in 2015, and there was never an explicit message requesting access to phone call and SMS data. Yet there is call data from the end of 2015 until late 2016, when I reinstalled the operating system on the Blackphone 2 and wiped all applications.
While data collection was technically “opt-in,” in both these cases the opt-in was the default installation mode for Facebook’s application, not a separate notification of data collection. Facebook never explicitly revealed that the data was being collected, and it was only discovered as part of a review of the data associated with the accounts.
Facebook also claims it never sells the data it collects on your calls and texts nor does the captured data include the content of your text messages or phone calls. The data are apparently easy to steal, however, and Facebook did not seem very interested in stopping Cambridge Analytica from using personal user information that it should not have had access to.
There are already movements in Congress to rein in social media data retention and distribution policies. No one should be surprised that the cost of “free” social media apps like Facebook and Twitter is personal data that the companies can use to send you better-targeted advertising. Facebook and Twitter may argue that they do not allow the data to be used or sold to a third party, but Facebook’s troubles with Cambridge Analytica show that even if the company’s heart is pure (surely arguable), that doesn’t mean that all its users have equally pure hearts (surely inarguable).