How Facebook got your phone number (and how to take it back)

How Facebook got your phone number (and how to take it back)

Summary: Chances are Facebook not only has your phone number, but a whole phone book of all your friends' numbers too.

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You may recently have gotten worried that Facebook has your phone number, even though you don't remember giving it to the social network. At the same time, you may have also realized the social network actually has your Facebook friends' phone numbers too, and you can see them.

Even though this feature has been available for quite a while, it became a big deal this week when some users started posting this message on their Facebook status, which in turn was showing up on people's News Feeds:

Friends! "ALL THE PHONE NUMBERS IN YOUR PHONE are now PUBLISHED on Facebook! Go to the top right of the screen, click on Account, then click on Edit Friends, go left on the screen and click on Contacts. Then go to the right hand side and click on "visit page" to remove this display option. Please repost this on your Status, so your friends can remove their numbers and thus prevent abuse if they do not want them published."

This is a little over the top, but it did freak out a lot of people who weren't aware Facebook had their number, and that they could see all their friends' numbers too. You can see this list yourself by clicking on Facebook Phonebook (you must be logged in to Facebook). Palo Alto has essentially aggregated the numbers that all your friends have shared with you into a list: you can see the individual numbers as well by going to each of your friends' profiles.

"Rumors claiming that your phone contacts are visible to everyone on Facebook are false," a Facebook spokespers said in a statement. "Our Contacts list, formerly called Phonebook, has existed for a long time. The phone numbers listed there were either added by your friends themselves and made visible to you, or you have previously synced your phone contacts with Facebook. Just like on your phone, only you can see these numbers."

So if Facebook didn't take your number by force, when did you give it to the social network? You could have put it in manually (Edit My Profile => Contact Information => Phones). If this is the way you added it, then this is also the way you should remove it. If you'd rather keep your phone number on Facebook, you can instead restrict who sees it (Account => Privacy Preferences => Customize settings => Contact Information => Your number). You have the following options to choose from: Everyone, Friends of Friends and Networks, Friends and Networks, Friends of Friends, Friends Only (this is what I have mine set to), and Customize (which lets you drill down to specific people).

The other possibility is that you have installed the Facebook Mobile app on your smartphone at some point. After doing so, there was an option to sync your phone contacts with Facebook. This allows you to call Facebook friends without knowing their number as well as seeing their Facebook profile picture when you call them or they call you. This is possible because Facebook compares the number you have for your friend Joe Smith with the number Joe Smith has on Facebook.

Here is what the message looks like:

If you enable this feature, all contacts from your device (name, email address, phone number) will be sent to Facebook and be subject to Facebook's Privacy Policy, and your friends profile photos and other info from Facebook will be added to your iPhone address book. Please make sure your friends are comfortable with any use you make of their information. [Cancel] [I Agree]

In other words, you agreed to upload information on your phone to Facebook and your friends have done the same, so they can see your number(s) and you can see theirs. If you want to stop this from happening, click on Remove Imported Contacts (again, you must be logged in to Facebook). On the Remove page, Facebook says, "Before you click Remove, you need to make sure syncing is switched off" and gives instructions on how to find syncing on your smartphone.

Here is where it gets a little worrying: this list includes the phone numbers of your friends who are not on Facebook. For example, if you let Facebook grab your phone's contact list, which includes a Joe Smith who isn't on Facebook, the social network still gets whatever you had about Joe on your phone (his first name, his last name, and his phone number). Facebook says it does this so if Joe one day joins the social network, it will suggest that you become Facebook friends.

Facebook is once again going out of its way to be helpful, which many users like a lot and others simply find scary. Putting all your phone numbers together in one place is part of the company's bigger strategy to become the center of all your communication needs (just this week the company released a new Facebook Messenger app for Android and iPhone).

Topics: Social Enterprise, Mobility, Telcos

Emil Protalinski

About Emil Protalinski

Emil is a freelance journalist writing for CNET and ZDNet. Over the years,
he has covered the tech industry for multiple publications, including Ars
Technica, Neowin, and TechSpot.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

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26 comments
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  • Class action anyone?

    Um, as someone who absolutely will never have a Facebook account, for the very reasons you mention above, this actually kind of miffs me a bit. I haven't given consent or opted in to Facebook to allow them to gather/mine my personal info. And, I'm pretty sure, but the people who have my contact info in their phones don't have the authority to give consent to FB for my data?

    As FB begins to slice and dice my personal info and sell it to the highest bidder (or any bidder)... Yeah, i'm pretty sure i have a problem with that. And seeing as they never sought out or recieved my expressed permission, doesn't that put them in an actionable position? (hey, hot coffee...)

    [i]this list includes the phone numbers of your friends who are not on Facebook. For example, if you let Facebook grab your phone?s contact list, which includes a Joe Smith who isn?t on Facebook, the social network still gets whatever you had about Joe on your phone (his first name, his last name, and his phone number). Facebook says it does this so if Joe one day joins the social network, it will suggest that you become Facebook friends[/i]
    UrNotPayingAttention
    • RE: How Facebook got your phone number (and how to take it back)

      @chmod 777 "this list includes the phone numbers of your friends who are not on Facebook" It does NOT get anything from your phone. How can ANYONE be that naive? Geez That indeed would be grounds for a class action lawsuit.
      blueskip
      • RE: How Facebook got your phone number (and how to take it back)

        @blueskip What part of this did you not understand? It comes directly from Facebook's mobile app!

        "If you enable this feature, all contacts from your device (name, email address, phone number) will be sent to Facebook and be subject to Facebook?s Privacy Policy, and your friends profile photos and other info from Facebook will be added to your iPhone address book. Please make sure your friends are comfortable with any use you make of their information. [Cancel] [I Agree]"
        PacoBell
  • RE: How Facebook got your phone number (and how to take it back)

    @chmod 777

    Class action for what? It's entirely possible that some of your friends have put your name and phone number into Gmail contacts, their corporate Exchange server, or who knows where else. Would you sue all of them as well? If you don't trust people to not publish your name and number somewhere, don't give it to them, and let us know how that works out for you.
    aep528
    • RE: How Facebook got your phone number (and how to take it back)

      @aep528 <br><br>The problem here is that we should have tworryie about problems like this. If i put in a phone number its for my contacts don'tnt expect facebook or any other profile web site to farm the numbers for any reason unless asked for it and why they need it. Internet company's don't ask they tell or hide what they do and that is just wrong.<br><br>Facebook could collect Numbers and say you are a customer and then use your phone number telemarketers and also give it to there select partners so they can try to sell you stuff with telemarketers and having your number on the do not call list cant stop them it allows companys we do business with to call us.<br>Even though all that is speculation We shouldnt have worry about that.<br>PS i do not belong to any so called social networks because i don't dont trust any of them they earned my distrust.
      Stan57
      • RE: How Facebook got your phone number (and how to take it back)

        @Stan57

        Every person you know with an Android handset with your contact details in it, has given them to Google if they have set them up to sync.

        Some of them have also shared them with third parties depending on how much attention they pay when installing applications.
        bannedagain
    • That's the whole point...

      @aep528

      1st, we aren't talking about mine (or anyone's) phone # and email in Gmail or corporate Exchange (FB shouldn't be allowed on Corp. network anyways, but I digress)

      We're talking about #'s stored in the [i]Phone's[/i] address book; FB pulls the data from the Phone, not Gmail or anywhere else, without the expressed consent of the user.

      As to [i]"If you don't trust people to not publish your name and number somewhere,"[/i]

      ...the people that have my name and number [i]aren't[/i] publishing it... as this article points out, it's being taken by FB without the knowledge of the user.

      [i]"...and let us know how that works out for you."[/i]
      This article already does that very thing. I've never signed up for facebook, yet they still have my data because they over-extended their liberties with users who did sign up.
      UrNotPayingAttention
      • RE: How Facebook got your phone number (and how to take it back)

        @chmod 777

        "...the people that have my name and number aren't publishing it... as this article points out, it's being taken by FB without the knowledge of the user."

        You obviously missed the part of the article that showed what the phone sync message looks like. Notice the little Agree & Cancel options? If you click agree, it means you knowingly agree to sync your phone contacts to your FB address book. If you click cancel you don't. It's up to the user. Since ALL the power is in the hands of the user, I'm not sure how FB "overextended their liberties."

        You're so fired up that it's making me chuckle a little. As another user pointed out, and you seemed to have not quite understood, if a friend who has your number puts it in his Gmail address book, doesn't that mean Google has your phone number now? If a friend puts your number in his Outlook address book at work, doesn't that mean his company now has your number? What if that friend works for a big e-mail marketing firm, or *gasp* Facebook.
        slanek
  • Use prepaid phones

    and leave your phone on and at home if you're going anywhere you don't want the world to know about.
    HollywoodDog
  • I just checked, an yes ......

    they were there! I DID NOT give Facebook explicit permission to publish UNLISTED contacts off my phone.
    This is kind of like the doctor's office giving your SS# and other personal information out to his marketing buddies JUST BECAUSE YOU ARE HIS PATIENT!
    It ain't right!
    kd5auq
  • RE: How Facebook got your phone number (and how to take it back)

    I read the exact same status on one of my friends and I promptly explained the same thing in a shorter sweeter way...

    "Those numbers were put online by your friends. Never did Facebook took it without their consent, or yours. If you are seeing their number it means they put it there and that they wanted you to see it. By default, the privacy setting for phone numbers are "Friends Only" unless they changed that, all of that person's friends including you can see it. If she/he's not my friend I can't see it. So stop the panic since it's a false alarm."

    That's the best I could say about this.
    zaghy2zy
  • RE: How Facebook got your phone number (and how to take it back)

    duh, if you don't want any problem,don't "socialize". am sure long before facebook era you've already received unwanted calls plenty of times a day. why are we receiving hundred SPAM mails a day when we didn't give our email addresses to them? this is just part of being high tech. very compromising.. just imagine the primitive people, am sure they don't worry about this issue :)
    maysheil
  • RE: How Facebook got your phone number (and how to take it back)

    I am sure Facebook wrote a disclaimer in a very, very small font that won't make you want to read it. If someone launch a lawsuit against Facebook, all they have to say is..well, you did not read the disclaimer that we are going to have all info in your contact list.
    Ulysses21
    • Except, I'm not on FB

      @Ulysses21

      So I never agreed to such a disclaimer, regardless of any font.
      UrNotPayingAttention
      • RE: How Facebook got your phone number (and how to take it back)

        @chmod 777 - Either you or one of your friends answered "I Agree" to this prompt:

        "If you enable this feature, all contacts from your device (name, email address, phone number) will be sent to Facebook and be subject to Facebooks Privacy Policy, and your friends profile photos and other info from Facebook will be added to your iPhone address book. Please make sure your friends are comfortable with any use you make of their information. [Cancel] [I Agree]"
        PollyProteus
  • RE: How Facebook got your phone number (and how to take it back)

    Yet ANOTHER good reason to NOT be on Facebook! Or most other social media too!
    JTF243@...
  • No FB or social media for me

    So happy to see other kindred spirits who have never signed up for Facebook because of the looming possibility of this very kind of thing. I have always been apprehensive of being unable to unring the bell somewhere down the road, so I long ago refused to be one of the sheep who spew their personal lives/details out into internet limbo.
    Tresbear
  • RE: How Facebook got your phone number (and how to take it back)

    So how do I get my phone number *off* whatever walls it's now on if I'm not a FB member at all (and never have been)?
    fejlinton@...
  • RE: How Facebook got your phone number (and how to take it back)

    So far everyone I've talked to wasn't aware that their friends could see their phone number. I only add friends I actually know personally so it's no big deal for me but how many thousands of friends do you have so you can get farmville bonuses?
    Snowsong
  • Condemned ...

    Quote?

    Facebook says it does this so if Joe one day joins the social network, it will suggest that you become Facebook friends.

    Collecting Joe's personal data, without his knowledge, just in case, one day, ...

    Just listen to those lawyers' hands rubbing.
    PassingWind