Paranoid Android – the Facebook Fear
Following the announcement in April that Facebook would be splitting its messaging service, the Social Media giants have been gradually rolling out their new ‘Facebook Messenger’ app worldwide. However, the roll out has been far from smooth with many angry Android users flocking to the Android app store Google Play to vent their frustrations.
The reason behind users’ frustration is twofold: firstly, because the app seemed to ‘force’ itself into the palm of the user’s hands; and probably most of all – the privacy concerns which have been rife online amongst the vast expanse of scaremongering blogs.
Focussing on the latter of these, the scaremongering likely originated from an article published on the Huffington Post in December last year of which an updated and corrected version has been re-doing the rounds on social media over the past few weeks. The article states:
How much access to your (and your friends') personal data are you prepared to share for access to free mobile apps? I suspect the amount is significantly less than that which you actually agreed to share when blindly accepting an app's Terms of Service or the default permissions required by a given operating system for an app to function.
Case in point: Facebook's Messenger App, which boasts more than 200,000 million monthly users, requires you to allow access to an alarming amount of personal data and, even more startling, direct control over your mobile device. I'm willing to bet that few, if any, of those using Messenger on Android devices, for example, fully considered the permissions they were accepting when using the app.
Well, when you put it like that, it does seem scary – and in an attempt to save the world bloggers have been republishing this like crazy.
The problem is though: while being caught up in spreading fear throughout the innocent social networking community, these bloggers seem to have forgotten to tell the whole truth, or even add any perspective.
One worried user’s review on Google Play said he didn’t like it as: “Facebook doesn’t need to have all this accessibility to our phones. A lot of it is personal. It’s weird they want to hear our conversations, and look through our cameras.”
But let’s take a closer look at some of these app permissions and see if Facebook really has turned into Big Brother...
Read phone status and identity/read your contacts/directly call phone numbers: These permissions are in place because Facebook Messenger can initiate a call (only if you ask it to, not by itself).
Edit your text messages/receive text messages/read your text messages/send SMS messages/receive text messages: There are two main reasons for this one: firstly, when you give Facebook your phone number, Messenger uses an SMS to confirm your phone number and secondly, you can also send SMS messages to people who are not yet on Messenger, for this to be possible Messenger also needs access to your contacts (tying in with the previous permissions).
Access to Camera & Microphone: Despite what our worried Google Play reviewer thought, these permissions are not in place for Facebook to hear your conversations or look through your camera. Instead, the camera simply allows you to take pictures with the app which will automatically send them, while the microphone allows you to send voice messages and talk while making a call via the app.
Modify or delete the contents of your USB storage: Instead of having to download your friends profile pictures each time you access the app – which would be slow and also cost data if you’re not on Wi-Fi – this permission allows the app to store data like this on your device.
Full network access/receive data from Internet/download files without notification/view Wi-Fi connections/change network connectivity/view network connections: While sounding scary, the reason for these permissions is simple, Facebook Messenger needs a data connection. As for downloading files without notification, this is a common permission for apps like Facebook and is the reason you have probably noticed Facebook looking different when you haven’t actually updated it.
The truth is Facebook’s Messenger app is no more invasive than the Facebook app. By asking for these permissions, Facebook or its Messenger app or any app for that matter are not asking to look through your camera and have you under surveillance, or look through your contacts to find out who your friends are. Rather, they ask for these permissions because the app has a function that, if used, would require access to a feature on your Smartphone, for example, taking a picture via the Facebook Messenger app requires the use of your phone’s camera. Even if you think you’ll never use Messenger to send a picture, the app still has to declare it as permission in case you ever do. After all, it’s only Facebook not Big Brother.