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Facebook’s sneaky “opt-in” defense for tracking all your texts and phone calls

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal, we found out that Facebook was also logging the texts and calls of Android users. Facebook pointed out that all those users had agreed to the tracking on an opt-in screen. In other words, Facebook took advantage of the fact nearly everyone clicks on things without reading them.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg didn’t really apologize for Cambridge Analytica getting unauthorized access to Facebook data through a quiz application; he called it “a breach of trust.” But this time, Facebook says it did nothing wrong. Let’s take apart its statement. I’ve added a translation.

Fact Check: Your Call and SMS History

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.

Translation: We did this call- and text-logging on purpose.

Opt-in features in Facebook Lite and Messenger

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. If, at any time, they no longer wish to use this feature they can turn it off in settings, or here for Facebook Lite users, and all previously shared call and text history shared via that app is deleted. While we receive certain permissions from Android, uploading this information has always been opt-in only.

Translation: If you don’t like this, it’s your fault. We asked you and you said yes. Don’t you remember agreeing to it?

We introduced this feature for Android users a couple of years ago. Contact importers are fairly common among social apps and services as a way to more easily find the people you want to connect with. This was first introduced in Messenger in 2015, and later offered as an option in Facebook Lite, a lightweight version of Facebook for Android.

Translation: Lots of apps import contact lists — everybody’s doing it. Of course, we did more than import contacts, we imported information about every phone call and text you sent. Isn’t that almost the same thing?

How it works

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.

Translation: We wrote “Text anyone in your phone” which sounds like what everyone does when texting. But if you read the light grey print, you’ll see something about uploading info, not just about your contacts’ phone numbers, but about “your call and text history.” Gotcha!

If, at any point, you no longer wish to continuously upload this information, you can easily turn this feature off in your settings. You can also turn off continuous call and text history logging while keeping contact uploading enabled. You can also go to this page to see which contacts you have uploaded from Messenger, and you can delete all contact information you’ve uploaded from that app should you choose.

Translation: Once you figure out that we’re tracking everything you do, you can wade into our privacy settings and turn it off. But be aware: many who have entered that deep, dark privacy forest have never returned.

We never sell this data, and this feature does not collect the content of your text messages or calls

When this feature is enabled, uploading your contacts also allows us to use information like when a call or text was made or received. This feature does not collect the content of your calls or text messages. Your information is securely stored and we do not sell this information to third parties. You are always in control of the information you share with Facebook.

Translation: It could be worse. We could be listening to your calls and reading your texts.

Opt-ins are going to bite all of us

Facebook is right. Every person whose calls and texts they logged opted in. Then why are those people so upset?

Because those people don’t remember agreeing to get their calls and texts tracked.

Or because they do remember, but thought they were only giving access to the contact list, not information about every call and text.

“Opt-in” means you have to agree. But it’s easy to click, and hard to read and understand everything you click on. (Really, when was the last time your read the “terms of service” for something before clicking on it? Sure, you do that every single time, right?)

Applications like this are going to be more common. So are opt-ins that fly by in a hurry but open you up, not just to sharing data, but to financial liability. (The Boston Globe wrote a story this week about the tricky “free trials” that have resulted in surprising recurring monthly charges on people’s credit cards.)

I see three possible outcomes.

  1. Let the buyer beware. This is the user’s problem.
  2. Create regulation. Insist on clearer warnings for opt-in pages.
  3. The online industry self-regulates and develops its own standards for clearer opt-ins for data sharing and credit-card charges.

Which approach do you think is best?

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  1. I enjoy your editorial bits woven through. But don’t call it “translation.” “Interpretation” seems more accurate, since you give a cynic’s coloration. And if you can throw in some interpretative dance moves at the same time, all the better! I look forward to the video link!

  2. Just received this from my good friends at Microsoft:
    You can read the entire Microsoft Services Agreement here. You can also learn more about these updates on our FAQ page here, including a summary of the most notable changes. The updates to the Microsoft Services Agreement will take effect on Ma‍y 1, 20‍18. If you continue to use our products and services on or after Ma‍y 1, 20‍18, you are agreeing to the updated Microsoft Services Agreement.
    If you do not agree, you can choose to discontinue using the products and services, and close your Microsoft account before these terms become effective. If you are a parent or guardian, you are responsible for your child’s or teenager’s use of Microsoft products and services, including purchases.
    But try wading through the actual terms and you’ll go blind. They lump all there services into one document to make it even harder for anyone who’s trying to understand. Even as consumers, we are the product. Josh, you would be the perfect person to write us a universal message that every company could be required to use that protects our privacy. Click this box and you know you won’t be tracked, and your data won’t be sold, rented, or shared. Hey, a girl can dream…