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Facebook engineered ways to access user’s call history without alerting users

Team considered access to call history considered 'high PR risk' but 'growth team will charge ahead'. Facebook created upgrade path to access data without subjecting users to Android permissions dialogue.

According to startup legends, Facebook was born out of a failed misadventure to rate your friends among the Harvard Network. So it’s no wonder that years later, Ted Kramer founded Six4Three, a tech company that came up with a way to search for bikini pics from your contacts on Facebook.After Facebook closed off access to data in 2014, the company sued Facebook for destroying that line of business, hoping to recover the money invested in the app.

What followed was the beginning of a shit-storm for Facebook.

During the legal discovery process, Six4Three obtained email and/or internal documents allegedly showing how much Facebook-founder Mark Zuckerberg knew about the privacy gaps in the Facebook partner API. This same API was abused by Cambridge Analytica to data mine information on tens of millions of US voters from a few hundred thousand users. Damian Collins, a UK MP investigating Cambridge Analytica, took interest in the documents and compelled their release in November 2018 by threatening the founder of Six4Three with imprisonment while he was in the UK on other business.

13 hours ago, via Twitter handle @CommonsCMS (the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, comprised of a cross-party committee of MPs appointed to scrutinize the  UK Government, of which MP Damian Collins is a part) uleashed a torrential report based on the suit arising from the company Six4Three suing Facebook for damages.

And the report just opens up the scope of blatant disregard and loop-hole fishing on behalf of Facebook when it comes to user privacy on Android.

In one email, dated Feb. 4, 2015, a Facebook engineer, Mark Tankelowitz, displayed some concern about how Facebook’s moves would be perceived by the public. He said a feature of the Android Facebook app that would “continually upload” a user’s call and SMS history would be a “high-risk thing to do from a PR perspective.” A subsequent email suggests users wouldn’t need to be prompted to give permission for this feature to be activated.

That move, combined with one that would track what stores users were entering would lead to a situation where “enterprising journalists dig into what exactly the new update is requesting, then write stories about ‘Facebook uses new Android update to pry into your private life in ever more terrifying ways — reading your call log, tracking you in businesses with beacons, etc.”’

The above also confirms years of suspicion that call history was used to improve PYMK (People You May Know) suggestions and newsfeed rankings by Facebook, without authorization.

Simply put, in efforts to find who your friends where, Facebook also had permanent records of your SMS from your banks, your various OTP and every private conversation via call, all logs of your phone calls and more.

The trove of internal correspondence provides a look into the ways Facebook executives, including Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, treated information posted by users like a commodity that could be harnessed in service of business goals. Apps were invited to use Facebook’s network to grow, as long as that increased usage of Facebook. Certain competitors, in a list reviewed by Zuckerberg himself, were not allowed to use Facebook’s tools and data without his personal sign-off.

The report also sheds light of extensive and deliberate anti-competitive efforts on the part of Facebook, right from Mr.Zuckerberg. For example, in early 2013, Twitter Inc. launched the Vine video-sharing service, which drew on a Facebook tool that let Vine users connect to their Facebook friends. Alerted to the possible competitive threat by an engineer who recommended cutting off Vine’s access to Facebook data, Zuckerberg replied succinctly:

“Yup, go for it.”

In other cases Zuckerberg eloquently espoused the value of giving software developers more access to user data in hopes that it would result in applications that, in turn, would encourage people to do more on Facebook.

“We’re trying to enable people to share everything they want, and to do it on Facebook,” Zuckerberg wrote in a November 2012 email.

“Sometimes the best way to enable people to share something is to have a developer build a special purpose app or network for that type of content and to make that app social by having Facebook plug into it. However, that may be good for the world but it’s not good for us unless people also share back to Facebook and that content increases the value of our network.”

Facebook’s current response is to state that the leaked document depicts only one side of the argument and has been trying to legally claim in the UK courts that the documents shouldn’t have been found on Mr.Kramer in the first place.


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