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The 7 worst things about Facebook revealed by the British email dump


On December 5, 2018, a treasure trove of internal Facebook emails was released by the UK Parliament. This comes as a result of a lawsuit by the app maker Six4Three, claiming that Facebook abuses app restrictions in order to put its competitors out of business.

With 250 pages to go through in this document, it’s quite an endeavour to get it all sorted out. Luckily, the internet’s been on the case. This in-depth breakdown from Ashkan Soltani (who is the former Chief Technologist at the FTC and ex-senior adviser to Obama) is what we’re going to use in order to explore these documents and show you the 7 worst things about Facebook that these emails and memos have revealed, as well as what they mean for you in particular.

#1 Without asking for Android users’ permission, Facebook found a way to access their call history

What the Facebook’s engineers were working on may possibly be the single worst thing discovered about the company’s email dump.

Turns out that the engineer team at Facebook found ways to collect Android users’ call records – without needing to ask for permissions.

According to Soltani:

Ashkan Soltani Tweet screenshot

You can see what Soltani is talking about in the leaked email below:

In this way, Android users would only have to upgrade to the newest version of Facebook. But the app wouldn’t ask them to accept or deny the necessary permissions after the update.

What does this mean for you?

Honestly – nothing great. All your calls were logged by the company to help them invite people to the Facebook app. If you even called a contact once, they caught that, logged it, and saved the data in their files.

Not cool, Facebook. Not cool at all.

#2 Facebook used users’ call history to improve their creepy People You May Know suggestions

Other users on the Twittersphere were quick to point out that logging user data – including their calls and text messages – without their knowledge or permission was a really bad idea:

Kashmir Hill tweet screenshot

That’s especially bad because it was related to Facebook’s People You May Know (PYMK) friend suggestion algorithm.

By the way, this algorithm was CREEPY. Here are some of the more titbits that came from this (as per Gizmodo):

· A social worker whose client called her by her nickname on their second visit, because she’d shown up in his People You May Know, despite their not having exchanged contact information.

· An attorney who wrote: “I deleted Facebook after it recommended as PYMK a man who was defense counsel on one of my cases. We had only communicated through my work email, which is not connected to my Facebook, which convinced me Facebook was scanning my work email.”

What does this mean for you?

If someone has your phone number or email address, they could be recommended to you on Facebook. And, if you didn’t set your profile to private (most people don’t), that means they can see all the stuff you shared on your Facebook – pictures of your family, your recent status updates, recent activity, etc.

#3 Apps have to spend at least $250K/year to get user data

One very interesting point that turned up multiple times was how much Facebook was willing to give access for companies that spent at least $250,000 per year on ads.

And one word keeps coming up: NEKO.

So now the obvious question:

What does NEKO stand for, exactly?

In multiple emails, Facebook stressed that apps need to spend at least NEKO $250,000, or using NEKO numbers as a way to decide whether to give data access to apps.

So what is this Facebook NEKO?

According to Forbes, NEKO is just Facebook’s way of describing app ads. But Soltani states that:

“NEKO is an acronym used to describe mobile app-install ads”

Whether it’s ads the apps are buying on Facebook or simply ads on mobile apps, the point is the roughly same – Facebook used this metric to decide whether to give them all that precious data. Or not.

What does this mean for you?

If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product. And Facebook sold you – well, your behavioural data – to increase their share price.

#4 Facebook spied on users with its fake VPN app

In 2013, Facebook bought the team behind Onavo, a free VPN service that was supposed to protect user data and keep their activities private. In early 2018, Facebook added this as a feature to its main app, under the banner “Protect” in its menu.

However, as opposed to what they’re saying, that VPN was actually a front for Facebook’s actual purpose: tracking the apps people are using.

That way, the company can use this data to plan its own strategies:

In the British email and document dump from December 5, you can see the following slides where Onavo is named as the source of the data.

The VPN app was also used to track the engagement competitors’ apps were getting:

What does this mean for you?

Obviously, if you installed Facebook’s VPN from Apple’s App Store (it’s now been removed), or from Google’s Play Store (for some reason, it’s still there), then Facebook used your behaviour for their purposes to decide which apps to kill or imitate.

#5 Zuckerberg shuts down Vine’s data access because of competition

Remember the glory days of Vine? Then you’ll also probably remember that the app was infamously shut down in 2017.

According to reports, the short-form video app found it hard to acquire new users or make money.

Now it’s been revealed that that was exactly Facebook’s plan: they wanted to kill the app. In 2012-2013, Vine was seen as a huge Facebook competitor, since Facebook was planning on launching its own video service in 2013.

At that time, Vine was the #1 social network app and the #1 overall app in the US on the iTunes store:

And so Facebook decided to kill it. In an email exchange, Facebook’s Vice President Justin Osofsky and Mark Zuckerberg decide to kill Vine’s data access, thereby seriously limiting its growth:

So now you know who to blame.

What does this mean for you?

If you liked Vine, your other-favourite social media company caused its downfall. But who knows how many other cool or interesting apps like Vine didn’t make it because of Facebook’s business strategy?

#6 Facebook forced Tinder to give up the ‘Moments’ trademark for data

So, then we have the interesting business relationship between Tinder and Facebook.

Facebook came out with a feature called Moments. The only problem, at the time, was that Tinder had already trademarked it. So, what is a powerful app like Facebook – and a determined guy like Zuckerberg to do?

A little tit-for-tat – let’s call it legal, corporate blackmail:

If you give us “Moments” we’ll give you data. If you don’t, your app will die.

You can see the email exchange here, with a Tinder representative asking what the trademark exchange is for, and hinting at a greater relationship (meaning continued use of data):

Facebook’s representative, Konstantinos Papamiltidas makes the offer more explicit:

Did Tinder accept? Of course they did.

What does this mean for you?

Your data was used as a bargaining chip to get Facebook a new trademark.

#7 If apps paid enough, they get your data

If you’re nice to Facebook, Facebook is nice to you. At least if you’re an app. If you were a good earner for Facebook, the company would allow you to access its data.

And, this revenue didn’t have to be direct payments from the app – apps could just get their users to use some Facebook products, like their payments system, items in their store, or the users or apps running ads:

That is the criteria they used to decide which apps get access to user data: money.

And now you know why they were in the Cambridge Analytica scandal to begin with.

What does this mean for you?

Facebook doesn’t care about keeping your data safe. It’s all about the money.

But it also means that – at least before the new scandal-motivated “transparency updates” – your data went to the highest bidder, and that data may have been sent to shady companies, to do who-knows-what.

The weird story of how these emails were revealed

Besides the movie-like drama of what the British email dump reveals, there’s an even bigger, Hollywood-style story of how the UK Parliament got their hands on the documents in the first place.

It all starts with the app Six4Three. They filed a lawsuit in a court in San Mateo, California, claiming that Facebook was selling access to user data for money, partaking in uncompetitive practices (causing Six4Three’s app Pikini to shut down), and mass surveillance on users.

That happened in 2015, and nothing much resulted in from that. But then the Cambridge Analytica scandal happened. That’s when the UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee began investigating Facebook’s practices.

The San Mateo court ordered the documents found in the process of the lawsuit to be sealed, since they contained some sensitive internal emails. The British wanted those documents.

So, on November 26, when Six4Three’s founder Ted Kramer was on a business trip in London, the British government seized those documents from Kramer – after twice requesting them from him – and published them under a rarely-used parliamentary privilege.

You can read the entire British email dump here [pdf].

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