Facebook planned to spy on Android phone users, internal emails reveal

Facebook project teams developed technology to allow the company to track the location of its customers from their mobile phones.

Documents seen by Computer Weekly also reveal plans by Facebook to pass data on single Facebook users to companies selling dating services and organisations that wanted to target them with ‘political’ advertisements.

The documents, marked confidential, reveal a secret programme by Facebook’s ‘Growth Team’ to collect and exploit data from customers with Android mobile phones.

Their disclosure comes only a week after a critical report by a UK parliamentary committee investigating disinformation and fake news, called for independent regulator to oversee Facebook and other social media companies.

The documents form an unpublished part of a cache siezed when the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee dispatched Parliament’s serjeant-at-arms to arrest Ted Kramer, founder of Six4Three, in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Kramer was forced to hand over hundreds of legal documents disclosed in his company’s lawsuit with Facebook.

According to internal emails published on Github, Facebook planned to use its Android app to match users’ location data with mobile phone base station IDs to deliver “location-aware” products.

Marne Lynn Levine, then vice president of global public policy, disclosed Facebooks plans to exploit data from Android phones in an email in 2012.

Tracking Android phones

“We’ll be collecting users’ location data and matching it with cell site ID’s. This information will be stored in anonymous form but will allow us to roll out “feature phone” products in the future,” she wrote.

Levine, who is now Chief Operation Officer of Instagram, revealed that Facebook had changed its policies to make it easier for advertisers to target single people on Facebook, including serving them with ‘political’ advertisements through a self-service interface.

“We revised our policy to allow advertisers to target users who haven't indicated that they are "married" or "in a relationship" (instead of only allowing targeting of "single" users),” she wrote.

“This targeting capability is only currently available for dating, but the ads product team is working to expand it to other verticals (like political) and make it available via self-serve.”

The revelation is likely to raise further questions about the use of Facebook for political purposes, following revelations that it was used by Russia to attempt to influence the Brexit vote.

Financial gains

Facebook’s project, which Levine described as a ‘policy relaxation,’ was expected to boost Facebook’s revenues, Levine revealed.

“This is a big win for the dating vertical specifically, but also supports our efforts to examine "good" revenue opportunities resulting from policy relaxation/changes,” she wrote.

The documents show that Facebook also wanted to use its Android app to gain competitive intelligence about rival firms.

According to Levine’s email, the growth team planned to use the app to discover whether users were using rival app stores rather than Google’s own app store to buy and download applications.

The company also planned to collect data about how rival apps used Facebook functions, such as camera and messages for “competitive analysis”.

“The privacy team is working with the team to determine the best alternatives for collecting this information while minimizing policy risk,” the email read.

Fraudulent charity apps

In other email chains, Facebook executives raised concerns that customers were falling victim to fraudulent apps purporting to raise money for charitable purposes

Facebook, which charged 30% service fees on the transactions, revealed in the internal email, “that an overwhelming majority of Apps using Facebook Payments to solicit funds are likely fraudulent.”

The company said it had changed its policy, so payments to transfer funds to charitable causes were approved by Facebook first.

Privacy blunder covered up

The documents reveal that Facebook executives raised serious concerns about the privacy of the Facebook platform after issues with one application sparked an internal panic.

Michael Vernal, the executive responsible for Facebook’s platform team warned in an email in in October 2013 that an issue with “Login V4” could have been “near-fatal” for Facebook platform, Login and other technology projects.

“If Mark [Zuckerberg] had accidentally disclosed earnings ahead of time because a platform app violated his privacy ... literally, that would have basically been fatal for LoginI Open Graph I etc,” he said, to retorts of “Holy Crap” from another executive.

“I want us to follow-up on this and respond urgently here, but I also do not want this story spreading inside of Facebook or off of this thread at all. I can't tell you how terrible this would have been for all of us had this not been caught quickly,” said Vernal

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