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Facebook knew collection of Android call data was 'high-risk' PR-wise, emails show

Levi Sumagaysay, The Mercury News on

Published in Business News

Earlier this year, Facebook was reported to be collecting call data from Android users without their permission. Now, internal documents released by British lawmakers show what Facebook was thinking about when it decided to do so: growth.

"This is a pretty high-risk thing to do from a PR perspective but it appears that the growth team will charge ahead and do it," reads one engineer's email from February 2015.

The emails also include discussion about whether Facebook users should have to opt in to have their Android calls and texts logged by the company.

Another employee wrote: "Based on (the growth team's) initial testing, it seems that this would allow us to upgrade users without subjecting them to an Android permissions dialog at all."

The email thread also included one Facebook employee musing about possible negative press coverage regarding a related Android feature that the company wanted to roll out: "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 logs, tracking you in businesses with beacons, etc.' "

In a Wednesday blog post, Facebook addressed the contents of the emails about Android, continuing to deny that Android users were not given the option to opt in, although some users have said their calls were logged without their permission:

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"The feature is opt in for users and we ask for people's permission before enabling," Facebook said. "We always consider the best way to ask for a person's permission, whether that's through a permission dialog set by a mobile operating system like Android or iOS, or a permission we design in the Facebook app."

Facebook said the "feature" is for people who use Facebook Lite and Messenger so it can suggest people to call in Messenger, or rank contact lists.

"With this feature, we asked for permission inside the Facebook Messenger app, and this was a discussion about how our decision to launch this opt-in feature would interact with the Android operating system's own permission screens," the company added. "This was not a discussion about avoiding asking people for permission."

Facebook's blog post also explained numerous other controversial issues raised by 250 pages of documents that were obtained by a British parliamentary committee late last month, and released publicly this week. The documents are part of a lawsuit against Facebook by app developer Six4Three, and are under seal in the United States. But British lawmakers, frustrated by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's repeated refusals to appear before them to answer questions about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, plus Russians' use of the social network to spread false information, seized the documents recently in what they acknowledged was an "unprecedented" move.

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