Classified word documents posted a few days ago appear to be confidential internal Facebook communications and reveal shocking details of the company’s treatment of user data.
About 60 pages of un-redacted exhibits from a lawsuit between Facebook and Six4Three, an app developer, were posted anonymously on GitHub on Friday. They include emails between various Facebook executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and a “highly confidential” 2012 memo detailing various policy matters.
“Like the other documents that were cherrypicked and released in violation of a court order last year, these by design tell one side of a story and omit important context,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “As we’ve said, these selective leaks came from a lawsuit where Six4Three, the creators of an app known as Pikinis, hoped to force Facebook to share information on friends of the app’s users. These documents have been sealed by a Californian court so we’re not able to discuss them in detail.”
The new cache of emails appears to refer to what could have been a catastrophic privacy breach for Facebook: a near-miss situation in which a third-party app could have disclosed the company’s financial results ahead of schedule.
In an email thread, the former Facebook vice-president Michael Vernal refers to some issue with an app, noting that it “could have been near-fatal for Facebook Platform / Login / etc.”
“Wow that would have been a disaster,” responds Avichal Garg, a former director of product management at Facebook.
“If Mark had accidentally disclosed earnings ahead of time because a platform app violated his privacy … literally, that would have basically been fatal for Login / Open Graph / etc.” Vernal responded.
He went on to urge everyone on the thread to keep the incident confidential, writing: “Listen guys/gals – DO NOT REPEAT THIS STORY OFF OF THIS THREAD.” He added: “I’m super, super serious here. 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.”
The sealed court dockets have been at the center of a transatlantic controversy since November, when they were obtained by the UK parliament under extraordinary circumstances. Produced by Facebook during the discovery process of a 2015 lawsuit filed by Six4Three, the documents were sealed by the California state judge overseeing the case.
When Six4Three founder Ted Kramer was in London in 2018, however, he provided them to Damian Collins, the chair of the parliamentary committee that was investigating Facebook, after Collins told Kramer that failure to do put him in “contempt of parliament”.
How Kramer came to have access to the documents in the first place, and whether he should have provided them to Collins while in the UK despite the court order, were the subject of considerable opprobrium by the California court – and by Facebook.
Another of the newly exposed documents appears to be a July 2012 memo from Marne Levine, who at the time was Facebook’s vice-president global public policy. The eight-page memo, marked “highly confidential”, offers a fascinating look inside the company’s policy maneuvers.
In one section, Levine discusses plans for data collection on Android devices, writing: “We’ll be collecting users’ location data and matching it with cell site IDs. This information will be stored in anonymous form but will allow us to roll out location-aware ‘feature phone’ products in the future. Second the growth team wants to begin collecting certain limited information about whether users have a non-Google app store enabled and which default applications they are using for certain Facebook functions (camera, messages, etc) for competitive analysis and product improvement purposes.”
Elsewhere in the memo, Levine details efforts by various Facebook executives and employees to curry favor with politicians around the world. Among other things, Levine celebrates a meeting between Gen Martin Dempsey, then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and Sheryl Sandberg, noting the Dempsey and his wife are “both active Facebook users”. The memo also references a successful effort to persuade the former Indian president Pranab Mukherjee to join Facebook.
The memo also references a meeting between a Facebook staffer and the head of California’s eCrime unit to discuss then California attorney general Kamala Harris’s office of privacy protection.
“The meeting went well and we were left with several useful assurances about the AG’s intentions – the most important being that they view Facebook as a good actor and they will keep communications with us open (we will not unknowingly be the subject of an investigation),” Levine wrote.