Facebook Denies That It Harvested Android Users' Call And SMS Data, Blames User Error

Facebook User Data

In response to reports that Facebook had been collecting call data and SMS text messaging histories from Android devices between 2015 and 2017, the social networks says simply, "This is not the case." The denial is part of a press release titled "Fact Check: Your Call and SMS History" in which Facebook explains that nothing nefarious occurred, and that Android users gave the company permission to scrape certain data from their devices.

"Call and text history logging is part of an opt-in feature for people using Messenger or Facebook Lite on Android. This helps you find and stay connected with the people you care about, and provides you with a better experience across Facebook. People have to expressly agree to use this feature... We introduced this feature to Android users a couple of years ago," Facebook explains.

The issue was first brought to attention on Twitter by a programmer in New Zealand, and gained steam when Sean Gallagher at Arstechnica corroborated things by downloading and examining his own data archive on Facebook. Gallagher found that his data archive contained call log data for an Android device he used in 2015 and 2016, along with SMS and MMS message metadata.

Gallagher's article also acknowledged that there was a permission process involved, but that is where Facebook and Arstechnica diverge. According to Gallagher, Facebook took advantage of an older Android API that allowed it to collect call and message logs when granting permission to access contacts (iOS users were not affected). And in response to Facebook's "Fact Check" rebuttal, Gallagher says the social networking site's explanation "contradicts the experience of several users who shared their data with Ars."

"In my case, a review of my Google Play data confirms that Messenger was never installed on the Android devices I used. Facebook was installed on a Nexus tablet I used and on the Blackphone 2 in 2015, and there was never an explicit message requesting access to phone call and SMS data. Yet there is call data from the end of 2015 until late 2016, when I reinstalled the operating system on the Blackphone 2 and wiped all applications," Gallagher says.

It's turning into a he-said-she-said situation, with Facebook claiming everything was on the up and up, and Gallagher alleging shady behavior.

"When you sign up for Messenger or Facebook Lite on Android, or log into Messenger on an Android device, you are given the option to continuously upload your contacts as well as your call and text history. For Messenger, you can either turn it on, choose ‘learn more’ or ‘not now’. On Facebook Lite, the options are to turn it on or ‘skip’. If you chose to turn this feature on, we will begin to continuously log this information, which can be downloaded at any time using the Download Your Information tool," Facebook explains.

Facebook also says it will never sell the data it collects as it relates to this situation, and that this feature does not collect the contents of text messages or calls.