Don’t Shoot the Messenger: Facebook’s New App Permissions

Facebook is forcing mobile device users to download its separate messaging app, Facebook Messenger, if they want to chat with friends using the social network. This caused a lot of controversy, not only because of the change, but because of the extensive list of privacy permissions, which many people claim is Facebook overstepping its boundaries. The controversy started when a “Huffington Post” article made claims that the app gave the social network “direct control over your mobile device” but this myth was soon debunked. The app, in fact, isn’t really any more invasive than any of the others you likely have on your phone right now. The Privacy Permissions Facebook’s Messenger requires the same permissions as their Facebook app itself, including access to your phone’s microphone and camera. Some of the permissions it requires, like for sending text messages and reading information on your Facebook profile, are to help the app fulfill its capabilities. Regardless of the specific purpose for each permission, there are two things about these permissions that contribute to the anxiety people feel about the Messenger app. These concerns, however, are more grounded in paranoia than fact. 1. Access Requires your Control The permissions do not indicate Facebook will access contacts or use your camera without your control. The app needs to be able to access audio on your phone to use audio commands and the camera to take and send pictures. While, in theory, the app could access these functions without your control, the likelihood of it happening is minimal. “If Facebook wanted to write code to when the device is dormant, to flip on the camera and observe, technically, it’s possible,” Jodi Caffin, CEO of the Apps Pros, said. “Would Facebook do that? I mean, if anyone ever found out Facebook had done that, it would be over.” 2. Messenger’s Privacy Policy is Pretty Standard As we mentioned, many applications ask for the same permissions as Facebook Messenger is asking for. But most of these apps don’t make headlines for their permissions, which most of us just accept without reading. Our blind acceptance of apps’ Terms of Service comes, largely, from a lack of time. A 2008 study found that it would take the average person 250 working hours to read the entire privacy polices that we receive every day. However, if we were to read the average privacy policy for most applications, we would see that their permission requests resemble that of Messenger’s. Permissions on Different Devices Because Messenger can do so many different things, its list of permission requests is longer than that of other applications. With Apple phones, Messenger can be set up so that the app only asks permission when the user requests to do something. For example, if a user never tries to send a photo, Messenger will not ask for permission to access the camera. This gives users more control over what functions Messenger has access to. For Android products, the entire list of permissions must be approved once the app is downloaded. Android also has specific wording required of privacy permissions that Facebook claims doesn’t necessarily reflect how each feature is being used. The daunting list of permissions combined with the required language made the Messenger permissions seem far more invasive than they are. Messenger is Nothing to Fear A lot of misunderstanding and over analyzing has gone into the hysteria about Facebook’s Messenger app. However, once the facts are laid out, Messenger is not much different from many of the other applications on our phones, including popular chat WhatsApp, Viber and MessageMe. If you look at the original privacy permissions for the Facebook app before Messenger, you’re not giving up a significant amount of privacy by making the switch. For the truly paranoid, Facebook’s message capabilities are still available on the web version of the app. Users can log on through a browser to read and send messages if they don’t want to do this on their mobile devices. While you’ll lose out on some perks, like voice commands and push notifications, the web version gets the job done. The strike against Messenger isn’t a battle worth fighting, especially if you regularly use Facebook’s messaging features. We’ve been giving applications permission to access our devices for years. It simply comes with the smartphone territory. The only thing you stand to lose is a little more storage space on your device. [zipfinder]
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