“It might be good for the world, but it’s not good for us.”
– Mark Zuckerberg, 2012
The above quote sums up Facebook’s attitude towards us, its users, and the wider world in general.
It comes from the cache of Facebook’s internal emails UK MPs posted online this Thursday.
(I wrote about this story here, if you missed it: It’s not often I side with a politician.)
Facebook did all it could to try to stop these revelations seeing the light of day, but in the end, public interest won.
That quote comes from just one of many, many internal communications that show Facebook’s true colours.
In that one, Mark Zuckerberg is talking about letting other apps share content. It’s a relatively small issue. But the way he talks about it reveals a lot.
Here’s the excerpt (emphasis mine):
We’re trying to enable people to share everything they want, and to do it on Facebook. 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. So ultimately, I think the purpose of platform – even the read side – is to increase sharing back into Facebook.
Of course, we all already know how little these tech giants actually care about their users. But it is good to finally have it in writing, from those at the top of the pile.
Facebook has been reading your call logs, without your permission, since 2015
Other than confirming a lot of what we already know about Facebook’s practices, there is one revelation that really took me aback.
Basically, Facebook wanted to get access to your phone’s call logs, but it didn’t want you to know about it.
Here’s the excerpt (emphasis mine):
From email dated 4 February 2015
Michael LeBeau – Hey guys, as you know all the growth team is planning on shipping a permissions update on Android at the end of this month. They are going to include the ‘read call log’ permission, which will trigger the Android permissions dialog on update, requiring users to accept the update. They will then provide an in-app opt in NUX for a feature that lets you continuously upload your SMS and call log history to Facebook to be used for improving things like PYMK, coefficient calculation, feed ranking etc.
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.
Yul Kwon – The Growth team is now exploring a path where we only request Read Call Log permission, and hold off on requesting any other permissions for now.
Based on their initial testing, it seems this would allow us to upgrade users without subjecting them to an Android permissions dialog at all. It would still be a breaking change, so users would have to click to upgrade, but no permissions dialog screen.
When you install an app on Android, it tells you what permissions it will have and you have to agree to those permissions or it won’t install.
The same goes for if an update means the app requests more permissions. You have to agree to it having them or it won’t update.
Facebook wanted permission to read your call log but it didn’t want you to know about it. As it said, it would be bad PR for Facebook.
Instead it managed game the system and get the permission without users giving it explicit access or knowing that it could now read their call logs.
That’s some state-espionage level misdeeds right there. Getting permission to take your call logs without your consent or knowledge.
The reason this one really sticks out to me is because of how it used your call logs.
Ever get a creepy “friend suggestion” on Facebook? Here’s why
One of the things it did was run the call logs it stole through Facebook and cross-referenced them with mobile numbers registered to Facebook accounts.
Then it gave you a suggestion to add these people as friends on Facebook under the “friend suggestions” section.
Remember, the more connections users have, the more money Facebook can make by selling those connections to app developers. So it’s in Facebook’s interest for you to connect with as many “friends” as possible.
I remember this happening because I got a number of friend suggestions that I had only had contact with through voice calls or texts and had no mutual friends with on Facebook.
At the time I tried to work out how this was possible, since Facebook didn’t have permission to read my text messages or snoop on my phone calls. But it turns out it did.
In fact, as far as I remember, this happened to a number of people I know and this whole episode kind of kick-started the Facebook backlash we see today.
We all got the feeling that Facebook was doing something underhand, snooping and spying on us in order to try to manipulate us, but we didn’t know how it was doing it.
Back then, people mostly saw Facebook as a bit of a waste of time but a good way to organise events and keep in contact with people you don’t see too often.
After Facebook started stealing your call logs and using them against you, opinion began to shift to where we are today.
It all turned a bit slimy.
As I have written many times before, people now genuinely despise Facebook. We now see it as a creepy overlord doing its best to manipulate you and make money from your personal data.
I think the fact it read your call logs and then made money from that theft of personal information is the most damming thing to come out of the whole episode.
I don’t so much care that Facebook used data we freely gave it to better target ads. I do care that it read our call logs, stole that data and then used that against us, too.
The first one I kind of take as a given. The second is just outright disturbing.
And it’s not like it just got carried away and didn’t realise what it was doing was wrong. It actively hid what it was doing exactly because it knew just how “high risk” it was.
Will anything come of it? Will we all finally delete Facebook and get on with our lives?
I doubt it. I still haven’t.
I only log on about once a week now, if that. But I still haven’t decided to delete it. It’s still useful for keeping in contact with people I don’t see too often.
I know it’s bad. I know it is doing all it can to milk my information for all it’s worth. And I know it’s doing its very best to manipulate me into logging on more often and sharing more personal data.
But, for some reason, I still don’t delete it.
I’m interested to know your thoughts on this.
Do you care about these Facebook revelations, do you use Facebook, have you deleted it, and what do you think the future holds for these big data vampires?
Let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time,
Editor, Exponential Investor