Image: erik tham / Getty ImagesBy Adam Rosenberg2018-03-25 14:28:54 UTC
Facebook’s data collection capabilities apparently extend to tracking all the phone calls on Android devices.
As the post-Cambridge Analytica scandal fallout continues to unfold, some Facebook users are downloading their data from the social media platform and uncovering a surprise: Detailed phone records, including dates, times, call lengths, call recipients, and phone numbers.
It’s only happening with people who use Android devices, and only when certain data approvals are granted. For example: I switched to the Android ecosystem several years ago, but there’s no record of calls in my own Facebook data download.
That wasn’t the case for Dylan McKay, a New Zealand-based programmer whose tweeted screenshot of Facebook’s collected phone data went viral last week. A subsequent Ars Technica investigation revealed the Android connection.
When access is given, Facebook uses an Android phone’s contact data to help guide its recommended friends feature. The company’s Messenger app goes further, seeking permission to access call and text message logs on Android devices. Those aren’t the only ways in, however.
As Ars discovered, in older, pre-Jelly Bean (v4.1) versions of Android, granting the Facebook app access to phone contacts also allowed it to access call and text logs. Later Android updates turned all of those into discrete permissions, but the change didn’t affect Android apps that had already been given permission.
In other words, if you’re a longtime Android user and you gave your Facebook app permission to look at your contacts prior to the release of Android 4.1 — which came out in 2012 — the app was able to keep looking at your call and text data. As Ars notes, Google formally started advising developers not to use the Android 4.0 API anymore in Oct. 2017.
As this news item started making the rounds on Sunday, Facebook published a “fact check” article explaining how call and text history logging is an opt-in feature in Messenger and Facebook Lite on Android. It doesn’t address the fact that some older versions of the app were effectively grandfathered in to sharing data — which, to be clear, is a Google problem — but it does lay out how the two apps go about collecting data and what they do with it.
Even with that Facebook explainer, the discovery comes at a moment when all eyes are scrutinizing the company’s data collection practices. The social network has been dealing with fleeing advertisers, federal inquiries, and widespread backlash ever since it was discovered that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica exploited developer resources to harvest the data of more than 50 million users in 2014.
If you’d like to take a look at all the personal data Facebook has in your name, you can find detailed instructions for snatching that data (and removing your account from the platform completely, if that’s your preference, right here).