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In the past few weeks, there’s been a lot of controversy surrounding Facebook’s Messenger app for Android and iOS, due in no small part to a Huffington Post article warning users that the app allows Facebook to access everything on their phones. The Messenger app has existed for years, but users were previously able to send messages through the regular Facebook app. Now, Facebook has killed this functionality and is migrating users to Messenger.

The issue has become widespread, with all sorts of outlets offering their thoughts on the app. Some websites have claimed the app is awful and is grounds for deleting your Facebook account, while others have said that the permissions are no big deal and that the concerns are a misunderstanding. With privacy being such an important topic Lessons Learned From Don't Spy On Us: Your Guide To Internet Privacy Lessons Learned From Don't Spy On Us: Your Guide To Internet Privacy Read More as of late, it’s important to cut through the misconceptions and find out how bad Facebook’s Messenger app actually is.

Understanding Permissions

Before we discuss if the permissions of an app should be considered invasive or not, it’s vital to understand how they work on both Android and iOS.

Android Permissions

Chris has already explained in detail how Android permissions work How App Permissions Work & Why You Should Care [Android] How App Permissions Work & Why You Should Care [Android] Android forces apps to declare the permissions they require when they install them. You can protect your privacy, security, and cell phone bill by paying attention to permissions when installing apps – although many users... Read More . In essence: Android permissions are an all-or-nothing agreement when you install an app. Before you can download an app on Google Play 4 Alternative Ways Of Browsing The Google Play Store 4 Alternative Ways Of Browsing The Google Play Store The Play Store, despite its massive selection of apps, isn't always perfect. Read More , you must agree to its list of permissions. If you don’t like a few, you can either suck it up or not install the app; there’s no middle-ground.

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Because of this, it’s vital that you always check the permissions before you install anything. Permissions are the one layer of defense between an app and data on your Android device.

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iOS Permissions

On iOS, permissions aren’t a blanket agreement. When you install an app from the App Store, you don’t have to agree to anything to use it. Instead, when an app wants a permission, it will pop up and ask for it.

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If you choose “Don’t Allow,” that app won’t be able to access the sensitive area that it just requested, but will continue to work just fine. Clearly, this system gives you more control over what apps access than Android.

If you accidentally made the wrong choice at one of these dialogues, it’s easy to change the setting. Just head into your Settings app, then to Privacy. From here, you’ll see categories of your data that apps have requested.

03-iOS-Privacy-Settings

When you choose Contacts, for example, Gmail is shown. This makes sense, as your Google contacts are synced through Gmail. Had solitaire or another free game 10 Great Free Games for Your iPad 10 Great Free Games for Your iPad Read More been found here, that would be a problem. If you need help getting iOS permissions under control, check out our review of MyPermissions Revoke App Permissions In Seconds & Protect Your Privacy With The Awesome Permissions App [iOS] Revoke App Permissions In Seconds & Protect Your Privacy With The Awesome Permissions App [iOS] Just as you have to be aware of what you click and what you download, you should also be aware of what apps can access your personal information. A while ago, I told you about... Read More .

Chris has elaborated more on the differences between iOS and Android app permissions at the How-To Geek if you’re interested.

Facebook Messenger’s Permissions

Now that you understand app permissions, let’s look at the Facebook Messenger app in question. On Android, you can scroll to the bottom of the Play Store to view an app’s permissions without installing it. Messenger on Android requires plenty.

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On iOS, you’ll be asked for a few permissions after you install, but they have some context. Among others, the app asks for use of your contacts so you can message anyone, as well as permissions to display notifications Put iOS Notifications To Work For You With These Apps Put iOS Notifications To Work For You With These Apps Did you know that with the right apps you can be notified about pretty much anything using your iPhone? Read More and use your location so those you chat with can see where you are. Again, you can deny these and just use the basic functionality of the app.

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The Android app, especially, raises some red flags. Why would Messenger need to record audio and take pictures? Since you can send voice messages and launch the camera from inside the app, these permissions are required. You’ll be asked to allow them if you try to use these features on iOS.

What’s The Problem?

Nonetheless, on Android and iOS if you allow them, the app could theoretically use these permissions at any time. Facebook has published a list of what it uses some of the Android permissions to do, and that access is obviously necessary for the app to function as they want it to.

08-FB-Messenger-Reasons

However, there’s nothing stopping the app from abusing this access whenever it wants. While this doesn’t prove that Facebook is directly spying on you Three Reasons To Believe Facebook Might Be Used to Spy On You Three Reasons To Believe Facebook Might Be Used to Spy On You Facebook could be used against you. Privacy is something that should concern everyone, yet social networking blurs the line between right and wrong. Read More through Messenger, if Facebook was ever hacked or someone at the company decided to have a little fun, they’d have the access required on millions of devices.

The big factor that should make you question Facebook is their history of changing settings without telling users and forcing them to adopt features that were previously opt-in. For example, Graph Search used to be optional, since people had privacy concerns about it. Then, they rolled it out to everyone and you had to manually adjust your privacy settings Prepare Your Account Privacy For Facebook Graph Search [Weekly Facebook Tips] Prepare Your Account Privacy For Facebook Graph Search [Weekly Facebook Tips] Every time Facebook releases a new feature to learn more about our friends, many people realise that their privacy settings are not adequate anymore. Their latest new feature, Facebook Graph Search, is no exception -... Read More to compensate.

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As much fuss as everyone is making about Messenger, Facebook’s official app has even more permissions on Android. For people complaining that Messenger is invasive and they don’t want to switch to it, take a look at the app you’re already using.

For a comparison, the popular app Snapchat has a lot of required permissions as well, including your exact location and recording audio. You don’t hear people upset about it, though. Why make a big deal about Facebook Messenger when you’re allowing Snapchat and Instagram to do the same thing?

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It’s important to remember that permissions are not bad in themselves; they protect your device. Permissions should make sense in the context of what an app does. Google Maps needs access to your location so you can use its GPS features, but a flashlight app doesn’t gain any functionality by accessing your location. It makes sense that Snapchat needs access to your camera; the app is built around taking and sharing photos with your friends.

It’s Your Decision

Essentially, all this controversy (and really, every app you install on your phone) comes down to your decision and whether you trust Facebook.

On the one hand, Facebook has given reasonable enough explanations for the scarier permissions, and a company of their size would be highly unlikely to start recording audio and taking pictures at will on everyone’s devices all of a sudden, due to the outcry that would inevitably happen.

However, Facebook is a completely free service, yet they make absurd amounts of money that has to come from somewhere; you are the product, not the customer You Are The Product, Not The Client: The Personal Data Economy Explained You Are The Product, Not The Client: The Personal Data Economy Explained As Andrew Lewis once said "If you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold". Think about the implications of that quote for a moment – how many free services... Read More . Facebook already is using your browsing habits to sell to advertisers What Does Facebook Selling Your Data Mean For Privacy? What Does Facebook Selling Your Data Mean For Privacy? Read More , uses targeted advertisements based on your interests Facebook Launches New Targeted Advertising, Will Use Data From Users' Browsing Habits [Updates] Facebook Launches New Targeted Advertising, Will Use Data From Users' Browsing Habits [Updates] Facebook users may soon see a new advertising trend arriving in their sidebars. The social networking site has introduced a new system of "partner categories" which advertisers can choose from to target more specific markets.... Read More , and even performs psychological experiments How Do You Feel About Being In Facebook's Psych Experiment? [Weekly Facebook Tips] How Do You Feel About Being In Facebook's Psych Experiment? [Weekly Facebook Tips] You've probably heard about the latest scandal from the Facebook world: Facebook has been experimenting on users and playing with their emotions. Yes, really. Read More on its users without telling them. Does this sound like a company you want to trust with your phone’s camera, microphone, and location, should it come to that?

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The problem with permissions is that there’s no way to know what exactly an app wants to use them for. An app could tell you that it requests access to your contacts only if you choose to share the app with your friends, but it could also be uploading your contacts to its own servers for selling later without telling you.

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It’s the same deal with Facebook: to use Messenger (or even the mobile app) you have to agree to (or choose to use) a lot of permissions and trust them to use that access responsibly. Just because the permissions list looks scary doesn’t mean that it is, but there’s no way to limit a permission to only what Facebook claims they need it for.

What Are The Alternatives?

If you’ve decided that you don’t want to use Messenger or Facebook mobile, you won’t have to be without a usable Facebook experience while on-the-go.

If you’re on Android, I’ve written all about Tinfoil for Facebook, an app that wraps the mobile version of Facebook’s website for maximum privacy. It lets you use Facebook on Android without all the permissions How To Use Facebook On Android Without All The Invasive Permissions How To Use Facebook On Android Without All The Invasive Permissions Facebook's Android app requires a ton of permissions, and it shouldn't be trusted with them. The Tinfoil app for Facebook is the privacy-conscious solution. Read More , and even allows you to send messages without Messenger. Check out the article for how to get notifications and remove the official app.

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For iOS, your best option is to create a home page shortcut to Facebook’s mobile site, where you’ll get a comparable experience and be able to send messages without Messenger. To do this, simply open Facebook in Safari, log in, and press the Share button at the middle of the bottom bar.

Then, just push “Add to Home Screen” and a shortcut will be placed as an icon; it even has the Facebook logo so it looks just like the app!

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Both of these solutions allow you to access your messages without Messenger, feature no invasive permissions, and will be better for your battery life 9 Proven, Tested Tips To Extend Your Android's Battery Life 9 Proven, Tested Tips To Extend Your Android's Battery Life No matter how long your phone's battery life lasts, there are ways that you can definitely make it last longer. Let's take a look at some different ways. Read More to boot. For all but the most hardcore Facebook users, switching away from the official apps is a great option. Most people really don’t need up-to-the-second updates from Facebook when they’re out, anyway; those notifications are distracting How To Turn Off Distracting Tech Notifications Almost Anywhere How To Turn Off Distracting Tech Notifications Almost Anywhere These days, we're constantly barraged with email updates, system alerts, and annoying texts from hypothetical neighbors named Brad about how he got his pet chinchilla stuck in the dryer vent again. But for some reason,... Read More and take away from your productivity How To Maximize Your Productivity Anywhere How To Maximize Your Productivity Anywhere With telecommuting lifestyles taking off, work is not limited by hours or locations. Here are a few pointers to help you make the best of working on a notebook while on the move. Read More .

Misunderstandings Defeated

Now that you know why people are so upset over Facebook’s forcing everyone to use Messenger, you can make an educated decision for yourself and share with others instead of spreading misinformation. There’s really no wrong move here; it comes down to your views on privacy and Facebook itself.

Feeling antsy from all this talk of personal information? If you need to make sure you’re up to speed, check out our unofficial guide to Facebook privacy The (Very) Unofficial Facebook Privacy Guide The (Very) Unofficial Facebook Privacy Guide Time to lock your Facebook settings and private profile information. Facebook doesn't make this easy, however; features are constantly added and the default for each new one seems to favor transparency instead of privacy. Read More .

Now that you’re informed, how do you feel about the Messenger app? Will you continue to use it or try one of the solutions given here? Get a discussion going in the comments!

Image Credits: Dollar via morgueFile, Lock via morgueFile

  1. Niels
    October 17, 2014 at 6:12 am

    Another thing to worry about is that now apps can add extra permissions in any permissions group they already have access to. For example if an app has permission to read sms which is part of the sms group in a later update the app can add the permission to send sms without you being asked if that is allowed.

    The find accounts permission I find even more scary since after granting this an app can now also happily add add and remove accounts read and modify full name information and even chane passwords with you not knowing until you happen to check your app permissions manually

  2. Jordan
    August 23, 2014 at 2:48 am

    I use Xprivacy and have pretty much everything blocked for the messenger app. After I first installed messenger, xprivacy would pop up randomly during the day because messenger was trying to read my location, my messages, etc, even when you're not using the app. Eff you Zuckerberg, you're not getting my data.

    • Ben S
      August 27, 2014 at 12:30 am

      That doesn't surprise me at all. It would be interesting to see how many times in a day the app tries to access everything.

  3. Tawnisha
    August 22, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    Thank you for sharing the fact and not just how you feel about it. :) And thanks a lot for telling us about the Tinfoil app. I've already uninstalled Facebook's Messenger app and now plan on installing Tinfoil for Facebook. :)

    • Ben S
      August 22, 2014 at 10:13 pm

      You're welcome, and I'm glad you're using Tinfoil. I think you'll like it!

  4. Grant R
    August 19, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    One thing you didn't mention is that in Android, you can disallow location permissions for all apps, and turn it back on as needed. It's located under Personal, Location Access. You make it sound as if iOS is easier to manage in this regard, but it's a pain to have to keep track of every app and what it wants. I like having that switch that disables access for everything that's asked for it.

    I would like to see more things added to that area though, like camera access, etc. I do appreciate that on my iOS device, I'm asked about certain things.

    Thanks for the article.

    • Ben S
      August 22, 2014 at 10:13 pm

      That is a good point, Grant. Turning off your Location is a good all-around solution, but you may want certain apps to access it (Maps, Weather) but not others.

      Thanks for reading!

  5. Jimmy.
    August 18, 2014 at 9:26 pm

    I think that Facebook is one of the most dangerous sites on the web and
    I would urge everyone to treat it with extreme caution.
    Anything that is so difficult to leave has to be treated with caution.
    And just exactly how do they make their billions on a free service?

    • Ben S
      August 18, 2014 at 9:30 pm

      I wouldn't disagree with that, Jimmy. Facebook has a carefully placed set of rules in place to make it tough to leave; you're right.

      As far as making their money, it's all about advertising. See an explanation for more; here's an easy-to-follow infographic:

      http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2014/02/how-does-facebook-make-its-money/

    • Clive R
      August 18, 2014 at 10:14 pm

      I too would disagree - I suppose if you are dead set against targeted advertising then you might have a point, however how do you expect a free platform to survive if it cannot use the data to make income. I am far more concerned about government privacy intrusion than I am about facebooks.
      If you value your data so highly then definitely do not subscribe to or use any google, yahoo or microsoft resources. I dont see using people's data for advertising as in any way sinister, I only wish more software was wholly funded that way.

    • Clive R
      August 18, 2014 at 10:24 pm

      App Opps - there appear to be two versions of this app one of which states it is compatible with 4.4.4 - it installed and appears to be working on my Galaxy note 3 and I hope at last to get rid of some of the permissions that free games require. The only thing is I imagine you would need to recheck after every app update if you accept automatic updates.
      The problem is that it is difficult to detect whether it works or not because the list of permissions shown in App manager will I imagine show the list that the app itself declares and will not change if you manage to block some of them. What the app does tell you clearly is whether each of the permissions have ever been used.

    • Ben S
      August 18, 2014 at 10:27 pm

      I didn't know there were two different versions, Clive. Could you link to the one that's working with 4.4.4? I'd be interested to try it.

    • Jimmy.
      August 19, 2014 at 2:39 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Ben, and for providing the link.
      Jimmy.

  6. David
    August 18, 2014 at 5:05 pm

    Didn't FB recently announce that they are discontinuing messaging within FB? In other words, you have to download the messaging app if you want to send messages. Thanks for the interesting article and excellent explanation.

    • Ben S
      August 18, 2014 at 5:41 pm

      They did, David, and that's what brought about this article. Until recently, you could send messages in the normal Facebook app, but they killed off that functionality and you must use Messenger to send messages now - unless you use the mobile website. That's what started the online outrage.

      You're welcome; thanks for reading!

  7. Peter D
    August 18, 2014 at 3:50 pm

    I think the thing you pointed out about being upset for this app and not others who use the same, if not more permissions is spot on. And some of these permissions sound worse than they really are...Like for example when it needs "Write access to SD or Storage". That is so you can save photos and keep an offline version of your messages and timeline. All in all, great article (Although I will be checking out Tinfoil ^___^)!

    • Ben S
      August 18, 2014 at 5:40 pm

      You're right. Making a big fuss over one app while having ten others that do the same thing is silly.

      Thanks for commenting! I hope you like Tinfoil.

  8. Clive R
    August 18, 2014 at 2:43 pm

    If I worried too much about the permissions apps ask for then I would have virtually no free apps on my device! If you already run the main facebook app then I dont see this as anything more to worry about.
    The worst permission set I ever came across was adding a microsoft exchange server for my work - it would not work unless I gave it full control of the device including the ability to wipe all data both on the phone and external sd card. The argument being in the event of the phone being stolen confidential email data might be at risk! I complied but was a little scared by it!

    • Ben S
      August 18, 2014 at 5:39 pm

      You're right, Clive. Using a smartphone or the Internet at all necessitates a certain level of your privacy being given up. It would be silly to advise people never to install apps!

      I'm glad you said that if you already run the main FB app you shouldn't worry about Messenger. I feel the same way: they both have almost the same permissions and they're both for Facebook. Use neither or both of them.

      I've seen that permission set with MS Exchange, too. I'm not totally sure why it requires those permissions, but it's definitely off-putting to anyone. That really jumps out at you.

  9. Saikat B
    August 16, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    Nice post Ben!

    In general, an interesting study could be to see if similar apps have similar permissions. Then there are the updates, which many of us do blindly.

    • Ben S
      August 17, 2014 at 7:17 pm

      Thanks, Saikat!

      That would be interesting. Permissions in general are a very overlooked but important part of our phones. The study you mentioned that would look at the perhaps startling permissions in popular apps could prove to be eye-opening.

  10. likefunbutnot
    August 16, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    I'm on a device with 4.4.2 now and it appears to be working fine for me.

    • Ben S
      August 16, 2014 at 5:47 pm

      Are you running stock Android? Is this the app? It tells me it's not compatible, and when I installed it, it crashes instantly upon launch. I'm running 4.4.4 on the Nexus 5.

      https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=fr.slvn.appops&hl=en

    • likefunbutnot
      August 16, 2014 at 8:24 pm

      Yes, that's the app. 4.4.2 on an unrooted GS4. It's the only stock Android device I have,

    • Ben S
      August 17, 2014 at 7:16 pm

      Perhaps 4.4.2 is the last supported version of Android, then. It didn't work for me at all.

  11. likefunbutnot
    August 16, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    AppOps on Android allows users to granularity set app permissions and doesn't require root. People should look in to that.

    • Ben S
      August 16, 2014 at 5:34 pm

      Unfortunately, Google removed AppOps' functionality in Android 4.4.2 and above, so anyone on KitKat can't take advantage of this. I'm glad you mentioned it, but for a lot of people it's inaccessible.

    • Sam
      August 21, 2014 at 5:46 am

      You can still use AppOps if you're rooted and have Xposed installed.

  12. Zinc Whiskers
    August 15, 2014 at 7:20 pm

    If their explanation is valid...then why do some apps ask for minimal permissions?

    Can't wait 'til xPrivacy is working on L Preview...

    • Ben S
      August 17, 2014 at 7:15 pm

      Apps ask for minimal permissions if they don't need them.

      For example, the 8-bit RPG game Gurk, which you can find at:

      https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.larvalabs.gurk&hl=en

      requires no permissions to run. It doesn't need your contacts, or location, or access to the camera. Since the FB Messenger app does want to access all these and more, it has to ask for the permissions.

      You have to decide if their explanation is valid or not. Obviously they have to have those permissions or the app wouldn't work like it should.

  13. Eileen Souza
    August 15, 2014 at 6:57 pm

    Thank you for this excellent explanation of the Messenger permissions and for the information about Tinfoil. I think I will give it a try as the FB app is a bit. I could also just go to FB via my browser and do my messaging there, if I understand it correctly. That the use of Messenger is only for the FB app not the browser access.

    • Ben S
      August 17, 2014 at 7:12 pm

      You're welcome! I think you'll like Tinfoil; I got used to it after just a few days.

      Yes, using any browser and going to FB's mobile site will allow you to send messages just fine, too. The upside of Tinfoil is that it contains all of your FB usage into a single browser, so you don't have to worry about them tracking your other activity. Plus, I know a lot of people like to have an app specifically for Facebook.

    • Joel T
      August 26, 2014 at 7:43 am

      Another alternative is to install uc browser
      And with a plug-in called fb faster
      You will get a even better experience of fb
      Than the official app

    • Eileen Souza
      August 26, 2014 at 6:33 pm

      Ben S, I am really liking Tinfoil. I am about ready to uninstall my FB mobile app. There is one small thing about Tinfoil that I am still debating about When I click on one of my notifications from a group, it does not take me to the post but sets on the post at the start of the group. Both my desktop and my FB app do take me to the correct post in a group.

    • Ben S
      August 27, 2014 at 12:29 am

      Eileen, I'm glad to hear you want to switch!

      About that: I'm not sure there's really any way top use it. It's likely just how the FB mobile website works. Do you interact with groups that much on-the-go that it would become an issue?

    • Eileen Souza
      August 27, 2014 at 1:07 am

      "Do you interact with groups that much on-the-go that it would become an issue?"

      That's what I am trying to decide. Since I got my GS4, I seem to be using my phone more and more to check my RSS feeds, email and FB, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. I have my own small business so I do like to stay on top of things.

    • Ben S
      August 27, 2014 at 1:19 am

      Ah, so it is a concern for you. I ask because since I started using Tinfoil I found that I don't really check FB on mobile a lot.

      I don't think you'll be able to change the way that jumps. I'm sorry it isn't just right for you.

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