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 as of late, it’s important to cut through the misconceptions and find out how bad Facebook’s Messenger app actually is.
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.
Chris has already explained in detail how Android permissions work. In essence: Android permissions are an all-or-nothing agreement when you install an app. Before you can download an app on Google Play, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 been found here, that would be a problem. If you need help getting iOS permissions under control, check out our review of MyPermissions.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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 to compensate.
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?
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. Facebook already is using your browsing habits to sell to advertisers, uses targeted advertisements based on your interests, and even performs psychological experiments 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?
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.
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, and even allows you to send messages without Messenger. Check out the article for how to get notifications and remove the official app.
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!
Both of these solutions allow you to access your messages without Messenger, feature no invasive permissions, and will be better for your battery life 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 and take away from your productivity.
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.
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!