Stop Freaking Out About the Facebook Messenger App

There has been a lot of noise about Facebook’s move to remove messaging from its main app and “force” people to use the Messenger app on mobile devices to send messages. Today, no less than four people on my Facebook feed made proclamations about not using the app. Here’s why you shouldn’t be freaking out.

Issue #1

The first issue here is that Facebook is removing the messaging features from its mobile apps.  Many people use their inbox regularly, and many are still using the Facebook app to do this. Personally, I hate the little chat bubbles and found them intrusive, but I do agree it is convenient to be able to do all your Facebook-related activities within one app.

So, everyone that had avoided downloading the separate Messenger app can it avoid it no longer if they want to perform messaging via Facebook.

Issue #2

The Facebook app, like many mobile apps, has a long list of permissions it asks you to grant. Some of those are detailed in this post from December 2013 titled “The Insidiousness of Facebook Messenger’s Mobile App Terms of Service.” One example is:

Allows the app to record audio with microphone. This permission allows the app to record audio at any time without your confirmation.

… which doesn’t sound very appealing.

 

Put Those Two Together

Issue #1 + Issue #2 = people freaking out and reposting that article from last year. And news agencies catching wind and writing articles like “What you need to know about concerns over Facebook’s Messenger app.” I think the majority of people who reposted the original article completely missed that it was eight months old – attention to detail goes out the window when there is important information that your entire list of Facebook friends needs to know immediately. So, people who have already been using the app since 2013 have already granted those permissions, and I’m going to guess there weren’t any major issues that arose in those eight months. But now it must be deleted because Facebook is evil.

 

Why The Permissions, Facebook?

So, why does Facebook Messenger ask for these permissions anyway? Well, the Messenger app allows you to take photos and send them. It allows you to record audio and send clips. It allows you to shoot video and send those. It allows you to message people via Facebook and also via text/sms. It allows you to call people via voip or over the phone. In short, it asks for those permissions because they are major features of freaking app.

iOS approaches this in a better way than Android. When you go to send the first photo, it asks for the permission to use photos and/or the camera. You can deny it that permission and still use the app. A lot of Android devices force you to agree to all permissions up front upon installation. But either way, they are all tied to features of the app.

 

But, But… People Could Take Over My Phone!

Could they? I’m not so sure about that. In fact, I’m willing to bet that the number of times a “hacker” has gained remote access to someone’s phone via the Facebook Messenger app approaches zero. If said hacker could access your phone via Messenger, then I’m sure they could access it other ways, and would thus have access to your photos, contacts, and more. Basically, I think that this app would be low on the list of your worries. I would be more concerned with weak passwords,  insidious wifi networks, and bank card readers than with this app.

The major issue is the addendum attached to some of the permissions:

Malicious apps may cost you money by making calls without your confirmation.

If you give apps access to your Facebook account on your phone, then they might be able to access information and do bad things. So really the issue is that other, malicious apps could cause trouble, not necessarily Facebook itself. That’s an easy fix – don’t install stupid shit on your phone. Don’t allow every little game or Snapchat photo saver or other random bullshit apps that you put on your phone to access your Facebook account. This is much more of an issue within the Wild West of the Android marketplace, where malware reigns supreme, but there are still some apps on Facebook that want access to Facebook even though they have no reason to access it.

 

But, FACEBOOK Could Do Stuff. Bad Stuff!

Yes, it could. Technically, since you’ve given the app these permissions, it could turn on your camera and your microphone, send some texts, make some calls, and do all sorts of crazy stuff. It could also track your every move and plot it on a map. It could. Unless you turn off Background App Refresh and turn off Location Services on the iPhone. But, let’s ignore that for a second. Facebook could do all that stuff. But do you really think they will? Imagine the backlash that would occur, let alone the possible legal ramifications, if they took photos of people without their knowledge.

The bottom line here is that Facebook would be committing suicide if it did any of those things. So it won’t do it. What you should be worrying about is what Facebook already does, outside of this Messenger app.

 

You’ve Got Other Things to Worry About

There is a certain irony in people posting about never using the Messenger app on Facebook. Via an account that they very likely created using a Gmail account. An account that they connect with other services and use to sign in to various websites. Why is it ironic? Because you are the product of Facebook. You don’t pay for the service, because Facebook is gathering data about you and using it for targeted advertising. Google is even worse. And most sites you visit track your every move. They know what site you just came from, they know how long you stayed on the page, and they know where you went afterwards. This is how Google and Facebook make money.

Facebook knows that Sally is a 33-year-old woman who lives in the North End of Halifax. It knows she works at massage place. It knows she’s married to John, who works at a bank. It knows that she’s eaten at Edna (because she made a post about it and posted photos via Instagram which Facebook owns, and checked in with Foursquare, which is linked to her profile). So, when Sally is browsing Facebook, and ad for FRED (salon in the North End) pops up. Because the owner has told Facebook it wants to target 25-40 year old women in Halifax.

When I was looking at buying a new car, I read a lot of reviews and watched a lot of videos. Months later, I still get ads for the Mazda 3 popping up on random websites. Google reads my emails, saves everything I search for, and sells access to all of that information to advertisers. That’s how it makes money. That’s why Gmail is free. That’s why Facebook is free. And I’d be much more worried about the “insidiousness” of how your every move on the internet is tracked, and how everything you do on Facebook is fed into algorithms, than I would be about the Messenger app.

 

Delete It. And Then Delete Some More.

So, in the end, if you have privacy concerns, don’t use the Messenger app. But it’s absolutely ridiculous if that’s your line in the sand. If you’re going to delete that app, then you have to delete your Facebook account, stop using Gmail, and make sure you are browsing privately on a VPN with no cookies. Because Messenger is just another item in the long list of apps that you have given permissions to, and it’s time to start reading all of those terms of service if you’re serious about this stuff.

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