FACT CHECK: Is Facebook Collecting Text Message And Call Data?

Emily Larsen | Fact Check Reporter

Viral tweets claimed that Facebook collected logs of personal phone calls and text messages that were not made through Facebook.

“Oh wow my deleted Facebook Zip file contains info on every single phone cellphone call and text I made for about a year,” wrote Mat Johnson, a creative writing professor at the University of Houston.

“Downloaded my facebook data as a ZIP file. Somehow it has my entire call history with my partner’s mum,” Dylan McKay, a software development student in New Zealand, tweeted.

Verdict: True

Facebook collected call and text message records from some Android users who connected the Facebook app to their phone contacts.

Fact Check:

Twitter users discovered that Facebook had collected their call and text message data when they downloaded a copy of their personal Facebook data. The data included all posts they had ever made, a list of advertisers with their personal information and – to their surprise – phone call and text message logs.

Facebook collected metadata – information about the date, time, phone number and duration of a text or call, but not the content itself – from Android smartphone users who connected their phone contacts to the Facebook or Messenger apps. It did not collect call or text logs from iPhone users because Apple’s operating system does not allow most apps to collect call and text metadata.

Facebook has stressed that it only connects to personal phone contacts when users grant permission. “Contact importers are fairly common among social apps and services as a way to more easily find the people you want to connect with,” the company said in a statement Sunday.

Starting in 2016, the Messenger app from Facebook asked users to connect to their text messages and calls so that they could text, call or Facebook message any contact all in one app. The company was criticized for its “heavy-handed” approach encouraging users to make messenger the default application for text messages.

Ars Technica reported that some Android users, though, inadvertently authorized Facebook to access their full call and text data before Facebook implemented Messenger-SMS integration.

The Facebook app also asked users for permission to read contacts so that it could recommend more Facebook friends. In old versions of the Android operating system, that permission also authorized apps to read text and call metadata.

Android separated the contact information and metadata collection permissions when it released version 4.1 (Jelly Bean) in 2012, requiring users to authorize access to call and text metadata specifically. But apps could bypass the need for explicit permission to collect the logs if the app coding said that it was built on Android version 4.0.

According to Ars Technica, it appears that Facebook used that trick to access all call and text logs without specifically requesting permission for these logs. Android disabled the ability for apps to claim an earlier version and bypass new permissions rules in October 2017.

After viral tweets sparked outrage about Facebook’s data collection policies, Facebook said in a “fact check” statement that the claims were inaccurate. “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,” Facebook said.

Many people on Twitter pushed back on Facebook for downplaying the metadata collection by saying that users gave permission. Users argued that most people would not have expected that granting the Facebook app access to contacts would allow it to collect so much information.

“I’m pretty sure that when the FB [app] asked for ‘access’ to your contacts, a reasonable consumer did not interpret that as ‘we can record all your call and SMS metadata,'” said a Twitter user.

Other Twitter users said that people agreed to terms that they did not fully understand and that they did not realize that Facebook would be collecting call and text logs. “Most people don’t read the user agreement and explaining that to them isn’t going to make them feel less intruded-upon,” Sheera Frenkel, a cybersecurity reporter at the New York Times, tweeted.

One user raised concerns that while some people may have knowingly and willingly given permission for Facebook to collect call and text metadata, those on the other end of the call or text had not.

Three Facebook users filed a lawsuit Tuesday over the call and text message metadata collection, arguing that the company infringed on their privacy.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

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Emily Larsen

Fact Check Reporter