On Wednesday 5 December 2018, British lawmakers made the decision to publish 250 pages worth of internal Facebook emails and other assorted documents. One of the most alarming email threads concerned Android devices, and shows Facebook employees discussing how they might access user call history without having to alert them.
Facebook product manager Michael LeBeau admitted in an email to his colleagues that it was a “pretty high risk thing to do from a PR perspective, but it appears that the growth team will charge ahead and do it”.
The released emails cover a period of more than three years from 2012 to 2015 and, up until now, were sealed as evidence for an ongoing legal case between Facebook and Six4Three, an app developer with previous links to the company.
Yul Kwon, a Facebook employee tasked with mitigating user privacy concerns at the time, responded to this email with an update from the growth team. He stated that they had been testing a new way to get users to agree to upgrade to this new permission “without subjecting them to an Android permissions dialog at all”.
In other words, Facebook was trying to collect as much information as possible from its users without them knowing. Kwon went on to say: “Users would have to click to upgrade, but no permissions dialog screen”. Unless someone went looking for more information, they’d have no idea that their call and text logs were being accessed and stored without their consent.
Publicly, Facebook denied that this was the case, noting that whenever you sign up or log into Messenger on an Android device, you’re requested to grant certain permissions. These include allowing the app to continuously upload your contact info, as well as text and call history, from your device. The main concern here is that users weren’t outrightly presented with these permissions, and so more than likely just clicked through without knowing what they were agreeing to.
Damian Collins, an MP for the Conservative Party, was in charge of the parliamentary committee that released the documents. He believes that Facebook was completely aware that the changes to its Android policies would be controversial, but “to mitigate any bad PR, Facebook planned to make it as hard as possible for users to know that this was one of the underlying features”.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg released a 623-word statement on Facebook attempting to justify the company’s actions. He says that it is “right that we are constantly asked to explain what we do”, and reassures users “this was an important change to protect our community”. This comes after the Cambridge Analytica scandal earlier this year, which saw an increasing number of people lose faith in the social media giant.