Facebook Admits: We Log All Your Calls and SMS History

John Lister's picture

Facebook users have been shocked to discover it stores the phone numbers of people who've never signed up to the site, along with the SMS and voice call histories of some users. But Facebook insists that users have explicitly given permission for such data storage.

The site's data storage and sharing policies came back under the spotlight with the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, when a journalist revealed that information gathered about users and their friends for a psychological study was shared without permission for use in political ad targeting. Since then, many users have been taking advantage of a Facebook feature that lets users download a copy of all the information the site has about them.

Much of what's stored is data you'd expect such as posts the user has made, lists of their Facebook friends, photos and videos they've uploaded, and copies of messages sent through Facebook Messenger. (At the end of the article we'll explain how to do download your own user data).

Journalist's Contacts Hoovered Up

However, several users have revealed more surprising data. The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones discovered his stored data included email and phone numbers for more than 2,500 of his contacts - including the journalist who broke the Cambridge Analytics scandal. Meanwhile a New Zealand man discovered the data included a list of telephone calls he'd made including the time, length of call and who he was calling.

In the former case, Cellan-Jones says he understands that when he set up his account he may have given permission for Facebook to check the contacts list on his phone to see if anyone he knew was already on the site. However he was shocked to discover that numbers he is adding now are still being collected by Facebook. (Source: bbc.co.uk)

Facebook: You Gave Us Permission

Meanwhile Facebook has dismissed the New Zealand man's complaints with what it's called a 'Fact Check' article. It says the phone call and text logging history are part of the system for helping users find their friends on the site. It insists that "People have to expressly agree to use this feature" and that they can change their settings to stop collection of call and text history, contact details, or both. It added that "Your information is securely stored and we do not sell this information to third parties." (Source: fb.com)

Facebook didn't explain how having a history of calls and texts would help the feature. In theory it could be a way of finding people on Facebook when you've called or texted them, but not yet added them to your phone's contacts list.

What Does Facebook Know about You? How to Download Your User Data

If you are a Facebook member you can download your user data using these steps:

  1. Go to Facebook.com and login to the site.
  2. At the top right of the page, click the Down Arrow button and select "Settings".
  3. The "General Account Settings" page will be displayed; near the bottom, click the link that reads: "Download a copy of your Facebook data".
  4. You will be asked to sign onto the website with your password. After that, Facebook will email you all its data (supposedly) it has about you.
  5. When the archive is complete, Facebook will email you a link; you will need to login to Facebook again and click the "Download archive" button.

What's Your Opinion?

Does any of this surprise you? Do you think users have enough information to give informed consent for such data collection? Would you like to see any tighter regulations on such activity, for example by only allowing sites to collect data they can prove is necessary to provide their services?

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Dennis Faas's picture

To be clear, I believe Facebook collects SMS data if any only if you allowed / set Facebook Messenger as your default SMS app. Messenger also has the capability to make phone calls over WiFi or Cell Data - but only to other Facebook members. This may or may not be logged (probably is).

If you use "Messages" on Android (for example) to send SMS texts, then Facebook does not have access to that data - with one exception. "The verge" reports that Messenger will collect your SMS and call history if you allowed yourself to opt-in to data collection using Messenger.

I downloaded my Facebook history and did not see any SMS messages - only Messenger texts. I looked hard but did not see any information about phone calls I've made. That said, all my contacts on my phone were in my Facebook downloadable "archive", which I am not too happy about, but that can be deleted.

caseymcpoet's picture

Dennis, Hi: Just want to tell you I'm sharing this article on MY FB page. If for any reason you don't want me to send me an email & I'll delete it. Might get some new subscribers, who knows. All the best. Casey

Dennis Faas's picture

Feel free to forward this article / share to anyone that comes to mind!

David's picture

I have never allowed their app to function on my phone, and have deleted my FB account. But what about others? What if one of my contacts did authorize FB to collect their call and sms records, and MY info is swept up in the process? In this regard FB has not received my permission. What about that bit of hoovering? What if it not just one contact, but several? The more contacts delivering my info to FB, the bigger provile FB can assemble about me without my permission.

buzzallnight's picture

you used your phone to access Facebook?
That was really smart........

scowei's picture

I've never used Facebook personally...I just have a personal account (totally locked down privacy-wise) because it's a prerequisite for having a business page. But...I've certainly used the advertising function of FB. I'm questioning that now.

I've never had nefarious intent, it was just standard marketing advise: "To grow your business, you must be on FB. And if you are a small business, FB is the cheapest way to get traffic." (I have two websites as a side project.) It's very hard to get noticed in a sea of content, so cheap advertising gets things started...especially when Google ads got so expensive they became out of reach unless you had a large marketing budget.

So, I have the FB pixel installed on my site, which tracks exactly who's visiting and what action they take and feeds it back to FB. That allows me to find other people on FB who match or to retarget them with specific ads.

But now I've stopped. I hadn't really considered all of the privacy angles before. The very things I never wanted FB to track about me I'm gathering on my visitors. You can't just do the right thing when it's convenient, you have to do it even when it's personally inconvenient or even painful.

I'm sorta horrified by the information coming out. Who reads the fine print of these disclaimers and opt-ins? Back to good old-fashioned search-engine optimization rather than surreptitiously hoovering up personal information.