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Facebook Messenger permissions raising privacy concerns

Facebook Messenger privacy rules have some people up in arms.
Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

On Monday, August 11, Christina Warren of Mashable tried to ease the minds of Facebook users who are concerned about their privacy after seeing the requirements for using Facebook Messenger on their smart phones. The Android version asks for permission to access the cameras and microphones built into their mobile phones, which conjures images for some people of George Orwell's Big Brother using their devices to monitor their activities.

Facebook made Messenger a separate app basically as a way to improve a private text feature that used to just be part of the standard Facebook mobile app. It is currently the most downloaded app in the Google Play store, but it has a one-star rating. Warren has suggested that the low rating is a combination of Facebook users hating change and an intimidating list of permissions that makes it seem like Facebook is asking for permission to hijack practically everything on someone's phone.

According to Warren, "Thanks largely to an old article in the Huffington Post and a new article from a radio station in Houston, Facebook users who are already upset about Facebook Messenger are being led to believe that the new Messenger app allows Facebook to spy on users, record all of their movements and do other insidious, nasty, things.

"The articles' authors seem to not understand how Android's app permissions work. That's understandable: Android app permissions are kind of a mess. It's one reason Google is going to great lengths to make app permissions easier to understand in Android L.

"What's not OK is firing up millions of users into being afraid that a messenger app is acting inappropriately because it requires access to a phone's microphone to send voice messages. As a Facebook rep told Mashable, nothing at all has changed in its Facebook Messenger permissions. If you installed the Facebook or Facebook Messenger app in the past, you agreed to give the app the same access that a person installing the app now would receive."

Warren said Facebook created a page to help Android users understand the permissions they are asked to grant if they want to download the Messenger app from the Google Play store. The explanation may not do much to help Facebook users in the greater Spokane area stop worrying about the app.

According to Facebook, "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."

Warren said the various permissions are intended to make the Messenger app more convenient and easier to use in conjunction with people's existing Facebook accounts. For example, the SMS permission is necessary to provide access to a Messenger feature.

"If you add your phone number to your Messenger account, Facebook uses an SMS message to verify that it is you," Warren said. "You can also send SMS and MMS messages to people who aren't on Messenger via the Facebook Messenger app. But to do that, the app needs to be able to send and receive messages."

Warren added that some of the permissions Messenger asks for basically just speed up the app or make it easier to do things Facebook users enjoy such as sharing videos or looking at friends' photos. Access to the camera, for example, may help some users save time.

"To help speed up the app and make things faster, the Facebook Messenger app can use part of the storage built into your phone to cache certain items and photos. That way, you don't have to download the same photos from your friends every single time," Warren said.

Warren concluded by saying that Facebook already knows a great deal about its users, so choosing not to use Messenger because of privacy concerns would not help anyone protect their identities. This is valid, but it probably wouldn't make people in the Spokane area feel better about using the app.

The thing to keep in mind is that Messenger is ultimately just a convenient app that could come in handy for people who have to pay for text messages on their calling plans and others who use Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family. As Warren pointed out, other text messaging apps ask for the same permissions so there aren't really any better options for people who still aren't comfortable using Messenger. The important thing to remember is that Facebook is not using any of the permissions required by Google to spy on their users.