Facebook wants you to know that Messenger is not spying on you

Filed Under: Android, Facebook, Featured, Mobile, Privacy, Social networks

Spy. Image courtesy of ShutterstockNo, Facebook Messenger will not secretly take video of you, listen to your phone calls, or tap into your brain to get all your secret thoughts.

After a long build-up of rumors surrounding the Messenger app's required permissions to access the device's camera and microphone, Facebook is finally attempting to set the record straight.

Facebook recently began forcing mobile users to download Messenger to continue using the chat function that was previously contained within the Facebook app, and that has spurred some user griping and negative reviews in app stores.

But the real source of resentment seems be a lack of understanding about how app permissions work, thanks partly to some misreporting of the facts on websites like the Huffington Post.

And, like internet rumors tend to do (hello Talking Angela!), this one's whipped people up into a fear frenzy.

So Facebook has taken an unusually proactive effort at quashing the Messenger myths.

In a brief article titled "Get the Facts About Messenger," Facebook's Peter Martinazzi explains that Messenger won't "turn on your camera or microphone when you aren't using the app."

Facebook is also pushing out in-app notifications to some Messenger users linking to the article, according to a report from TheNextWeb.

Martinazzi explains that Messenger needs permission to access the camera and microphone for the app to make voice and video calls.

That seems like a simple, and logical, explanation.

So why are so many people convinced that Messenger is a Trojan horse?

Facebook Messenger permissionsPartly, it's because Android users need to approve a lengthy list of permissions in Google Play before downloading the app - and Google's explanations of those permissions leave a lot to the imagination.

In a previously-published help article on Facebook.com, the company explained that the language used to describe Android permissions is set by Google, even if it doesn't "necessarily reflect the way the Messenger app and other apps use them."

It's not Facebook's fault that Google doesn't make descriptions of app permissions more clear, or doesn't give users the opportunity to accept permissions only when they want to use a feature like video calling.

But that hasn't stopped the rumor mill.

Internet rumors like the Facebook Messenger app spying accusations feed off of misinformation or a lack of information.

Facebook might have avoided some of the grief it's now getting if it had done a better job at communicating why users need to download Messenger in the first place.

Facebook is now attempting to explain that, as in this portion of Martinazzi's article:

Why we're asking people to install Messenger - We're committed to providing a fast, reliable and fun messaging app that anyone in the world can use to reach the people who matter to them. That's why we're focusing just on Messenger and moving messages out of the Facebook app. People usually respond about 20% faster when they have Messenger, and we think they'll find both apps useful in different ways. We hope you'll try out Messenger and enjoy everything else you can do with the app, like chatting with groups and sending stickers.

Actually, Facebook is not merely "asking people to install" Messenger - it's required if you want to keep using the chat feature.

chat-bubbles-170But that might not be such a bad thing, as Naked Security experts Chester Wisniewski and Paul Ducklin said in their Chet Chat podcast last week.

By splitting Facebook into two apps - one for posting updates and following your newsfeed, and one for messaging, phone and video calls - now you have more options for privacy.

That is, you can keep Facebook without giving away access to your microphone and camera if you choose not to download Messenger.

As Chet says in the podcast:

Now that they've taken out the stuff like the microphone and the video stuff that I didn't really want, into a separate app, I feel a lot more comfortable loading the original app now.

I think separating those things out into some sensible, logical categories of - hey, this thing needs SMS and video and sound because it's all about talking and sharing in real time with your friends, and this other thing doesn't - is kind of a good thing.

Facebook has actually done something right, and it seems it's being punished for its past poor behavior.

(You can listen to the Facebook Messenger discussion starting at the 8'01" mark of the podcast embedded below.)

(Audio player above not working? Download the MP3, or listen on Soundcloud.)

Images of spy and chat bubbles courtesy of Shutterstock.

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22 Responses to Facebook wants you to know that Messenger is not spying on you

  1. The challenge I have is that I can not trust those in the corporate world anymore. Enron, WorldCom, the US Banking fiasco and too many others to mention have demonstrated that those leading the companies around the world are greedy and without morals. In addition there is a broken "stockholder" model in these companies that forces management to forgo long term customer focused planning for a 3 month revenue generation model to show growth in the company and demonstrate "shareholder value". The pressure this creates in organizations makes it all to probable that companies like Facebook will do what ever to capture customer data, usage patterns, demographics, etc in order to sell more advertising. Yeah I'm a cynic, but it comes from experience.

  2. Friends Kaphka · 372 days ago

    Splitting it into 2 apps already raises suspicion levels. If it ain't broke, why fix it?

    • maggotification · 372 days ago

      Well, to be fair, neither the computer, the internet or Facebook would have been invented if everyone thought that way.

    • We'll have to agree to disagree on that whole "Facebook ain't broke" part of your argument.

  3. hm777@suddenlink.net · 372 days ago

    I've been working in IT since 1981, so I am well versed in technology.

    Fox News reported on this story originally with a couple of their Technical consultant experts who have pointed out that using the Facebook EULA that they can and will be remotely activating the phone's features and can remove photo's posted and other things posted. This just follows Facebook's psychological profile studies it has been doing prior to this.

    Frankly, I see it as a violation of the 4th Amendment, even if you unknowingly consent via the EULA. They do not give you the option of "Opting Out" of that consent. Your only option is NOT to use the app at all.

    Perhaps if you guys did a much better job of investigating things and paying more attention to the details, you might find out what is really going on here. Android phones already have a "back door" for the US Government. Seems like Facebook is getting to be alot like Google in providing "back doors" or using them.

  4. Andy · 372 days ago

    I know it's not spying on me. This nonsense was the camel back breaking straw that had me give up facebook and get this stuff of my phone.

  5. Anonymous · 372 days ago

    it said they "wont access" your features, it doesn't say
    "they can't" if they have the ability there will be security breaches. I wont be using the messenger until they make it more secure.

  6. Ivor Massey-Vaas · 372 days ago

    I don't believe a word stated by any government, government department, corporation, politician, state/banker controlled news channel/programme, senior military officer, bank, person telling everyone that the world will end in 2014 and selling books about it, educational establishment, employer, cold-caller, police chief, religious nut, spy agency or insurance salesman says. Apart from that, I don't have a problem with the integrity of Facebook messenger.

  7. Bill Hunter · 372 days ago

    Instead of all these companies blaming Google for the way they list and ask for permissions, isn't it time that they all told Google to change their policy? After all, it will hurt Google more if these companies stopped listing their apps on Google Play until Google start getting reasonable and responsible. I'm more worried about how much information Google is harvesting via these apps. It seems to me that the way Google is forcing the listing of permissions is rather flippant in these days of security concern.

  8. Isobel muir · 372 days ago

    I joined messenger but can't get my messages

  9. Messenger was the final straw that lead me to uninstall the Facebook app. They spent so long trying to force things people don't want, like that god awful 'a subset of your friends posts in a random order ', sorry, Top Stories on us that it was borderline. And then to start saying that they wanted to remove functions? Well, bottoms to that, I'll stick to mobile web.
    So if I had the Messanger app the I could make phone calls with it? Whoop. It's a mobile phone. I can make calls without needing to go through Zuckerberg.

  10. I think info-corporations like Facebook need to make very clear statements - utterly clear, no weasel words or wriggle room - about use of our information. People may still be suspicious but such statements are important - it would be commercial suicide to caught breaking them.

    I just tried out another messaging app., touted to be very secure. First thing it wanted was my mobile phone number (I gave it an old PAYG number). Next thing it absolutely required access to all my contacts. No option to just add single contacts by typing them into the messaging app. No access/no function. Why? Smelling a rat, I just deleted the new app. and moved back to another (free) secure messaging app which asks nothing from me.

    Shame: it looked like a good app/service.

    These info-corporations need to start realising that privacy is becoming one (amongst several) criteria that people will be using in their decisions to use/purchase particular products.

  11. John Culp · 372 days ago

    I've already been disgusted with Facebook since they took away "private" messages and forced us into the Chat format. I have absolutely no desire to be instantly accessible in real time by everyone. There are a very few friends and family members I want to be able to text, and that's a basic phone function that needs no Messenger type app. Asynchronous communication is what the Internet is for. I don't want to be instantly notified I have a message and be expected to reply. I'm going to check it when it's convenient and reply if and when it suits me. So I'll never want Messenger. Still, if someone I've friended on Facebook sends me something, I want to be able to check it. That's why I've ditched the newly crippled Facebook app and gone back to accessing it on the phone browser. When they disable it on that, I'll just quit using Facebook on the phone.

  12. Sylvia Davis · 372 days ago

    I never and I mean never! use GPS ! How come on my way out of town while going though my phone I received message saying HAVEANICE TRIP! with a smiley face Mmmmm Someone knew was leaving!

  13. Unpaid Author · 372 days ago

    Google's permissions are listed in black and white because hardware permissions are black and white. Giving Facebook permission to use your camera and microphone means the app can use it whenever it wants, regardless of stated intent. Besides, Facebook's statement that it doesn't "necessarily reflect the way the Messenger app and other apps use them" is far from the most convincing language I've ever seen to say "we won't do that." If we've learned anything from Facebook's psychological studies and the like, "we won't" means "we will." So despite the attempt to blame Google for the mistrust, Facebook and its paid co-authors need to accept that Facebook created this distrustful environment and can only blame themselves.

  14. Chuck · 371 days ago

    Facebook messenger *is* spying on you. I sent a funny gif to a friend via messenger. It was not even completely nude and it was a joke gif. Facebook blocked it immediately and I got a pop up saying that images like that were not allowed. I then had to sign an agreement before I could even use my account again. Now this was not even a complete nude. And it was clearly an adult joke gif. And I sent it in a private message. Facebook is lying!!!

  15. Matthew A. Lee · 371 days ago

    I agree wholeheartedly with hm777 on this. I had read an article about FB's master password and I knew they were "messing" with my page by posting likes that I did not like and comments that I did not make before the story broke about their "psychological experiment", I don't believe anything that FB administration says. Their credibility is in the toilet.

  16. SCF · 371 days ago

    INTERESTING - no mention at all of the messenger app having permission to access all your existing info on your phone (names, contacts, pics, etc) - you will open your phone up to fb to all your files - FACT

    • John Zorabedian · 371 days ago

      I neglected to mention the fact that Messenger seeks to "sync" your contacts - however, you can opt out.

  17. Anonymous · 371 days ago

    I don't want 2 apps instead of one, especially when I hardly every use chat. I've just deleted the whole mess.

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About the author

John Zorabedian is a blogger, copywriter and editor at Sophos. He has a background in journalism, writing about technology, business, politics and culture. He lives and works in the Boston area.