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The Facebook Messenger switch: annoying, but not evil

If you use the Facebook iOS app, you've probably noticed that the social network's private SMS-like Messenger functionality is migrating out of the "mother" application and into the standalone Facebook Messenger app (currently at version 9.1). Messenger's solo app has been around for a couple of years already, but Facebook is now reminding users more insistently that they need Messenger (or the mobile browser version of Facebook) if they want to keep using the IM functionality on their phones.

This nudging-slash-feature shifting is understandably annoying for many users, but it's not, despite what many people on the internet would like you to believe, out-and-out evil. A combination of out-of-date intel and overall paranoia is getting folks worked up unnecessarily. What's more, the most scary "Facebook is eating my data" warnings don't apply to iOS users at all -- they're Android-specific, and are only as scary as they are because Google insists that apps "pre-declare" anything they might want to do.

[One particular point of confusion is the assertion that Messenger may be listening to all your conversations, or trying to figure out what music is playing in the background while you use the app, all to better target you for advertising. The good news is, Messenger doesn't listen to your music. The less good news: the regular Facebook app may listen, for 15 seconds while you are writing a status update, in order to share the song you're enjoying with your FB buddies. The better news: the feature is entirely optional, and you can disable it easily. To sum up: "passive listening" has nothing to do with Messenger and is not a reason to hate or fear the app. If you want to turn off the microphone features in Messenger anyway, instructions are right here. –Ed.]

Much of the anxiety/anger is focused on the app's terms and conditions, which (particularly on the Android side; less so on iOS) ask you to give Facebook access to basically everything on your phone. Here's the thing: if you already use Facebook, you've probably given the company access to all of that stuff already. Still, in the absence of context, the Android permissions do sound pretty Big Brotherish. Here's a sampling:

  • Allows the app to call phone numbers without your intervention. This may result in unexpected charges or calls. Malicious apps may cost you money by making calls without your confirmation.

  • Allows the app to send SMS messages. This may result in unexpected charges. Malicious apps may cost you money by sending messages without your confirmation.

  • Allows the app to record audio with microphone. This permission allows the app to record audio at any time without your confirmation.

  • Allows the app to take pictures and videos with the camera. This permission allows the app to use the camera at any time without your confirmation.

That sounds pretty bad, especially that part about recording audio without asking first. What possible motive could they have for asking for that? Well, we'd ask Facebook, but they've already explained in the help page for Messenger. Here's why they include that permission, and why the Android version of the app is simply playing by Google's rules for declaring its capabilities.

Why is the Messenger app requesting permission to access features on my Android phone or tablet?

If you install the Messenger app, you should see a screen letting you know that the app is asking for your permission to access information or use features from your Android phone or tablet. Almost all apps need certain permissions to run on Android, and we use these permissions to run features in the app. Keep in mind that Android controls the way the permissions are named, and the way they're named doesn't necessarily reflect the way the Messenger app and other apps use them.

Below, you'll find a list of some of the permissions we request for the app, as well as an example of how we use each one. Note that this list doesn't include all of the Android permissions we request or all of our uses of those permissions. If you've already installed the Messenger app, you can find a list of the permissions the app uses in your phone or tablet's Applications Manager, or by visiting the Play Store and clicking View Details under Permissions.

Android permission (what you'll see on your Android phone or tablet) and examples of what we use this permission for:

  • Take pictures and videos: This permission allows you to take photos and videos within the Messenger app to easily send to your friends and other contacts
  • Record audio: This permission allows you to send voice messages, make free voice calls, and send videos within Messenger
  • Directly call phone numbers: This permission allows you to call a Messenger contact by tapping on the person's phone number, found in a menu within your message thread with the person
  • Receive text messages (SMS): If you add a phone number to your Messenger account, this allows you to confirm your phone number by finding the confirmation code that we send via text message
  • Read your contacts: This permission allows you to add your phone contacts as Messenger contacts if you choose to do so. You can always stop syncing your phone contacts by going to your Messenger settings

Facebook is a company that is facing increasing public scrutiny, in no small part because it has conducted thought experiments on users. As society starts to finally think about the implications of handing over all of our personal information to the social media companies we use day to day, it's good that we're asking these questions. The important thing is to look to verifiable sources explaining what's going on.

Yes, Facebook asks for access to your personal information with their new app. However, given the granular permission settings on iOS, you can easily prevent Facebook Messenger from accessing your address book, using your microphone, or checking your location. If you don't need a feature, and turning it off would be better for your own sense of security, then don't enable it. Dislike Facebook for shoehorning users into a new app they may not want, but don't buy into the myth that this is a new expansion of FB's information grabbing. They've been gobbling your private information this whole time. That's one of the tradeoffs of using the service.

For more information on what Facebook's apps do and don't do with your personal information, check out this handy summary at Snopes, this AndroidCentral rundown and this cogent writeup at the Wall Street Journal's tech blog.

Post updated 8/10 10 am to clarify Android v. iOS permission warnings.

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