Android

Misplaced fear about Facebook Messenger for Android

Jack Wallen puts your fears to rest surrounding the Facebook Messenger app.

Facebook Messenger app

Over the last few months, people have been in outrage about Facebook forcing them to use the Facebook Messenger app for mobile chatting on the massively popular social network site. Rumors of just what the app could do spread faster than any meme ever.

I decided it was time to dig into this rumor and see if these fears were founded or misplaced. As Facebook has become as important to businesses as it is individuals, it's essential to understand what's going on under the hood. Before I attempt to debunk the rumors, I need to spell out exactly what everyone is afraid of with this app.

Privacy. Plain and simple. People are afraid that Facebook is watching them, listening to them, and recording everything they say and do in order to target them for advertising. Ultimately, and Facebook Messenger app requires the user's acceptance of many privacy-violating permissions.

How did this come about (especially when an overwhelming majority of Android users do not bother to read through the permissions listing at installation time)? When you install the Facebook Messenger app, you are greeted with a sizable listing of permissions (Figure A).

Figure A

Figure A

The Facebook Messenger permissions listing on a Verizon-branded LG G.

To the untrained eye, that does seem like a grocery list of items sure to invade your privacy. But let's make a comparison. First, let's look at a similar app — Google Hangouts. What types of permissions does it require? Here is the full list of permissions from the Google Hangouts app:

Google Hangout app for Android

Identity

  • Find accounts on the device
  • Add or remove accounts
  • Contacts/Calendar
  • Read your contacts
  • Modify your contacts

Location

  • Approximate location (network-based)
  • Precise location (GPS and network-based)

SMS

  • Read your text messages (SMS or MMS)
  • Receive text messages (SMS)
  • Send SMS messages
  • Edit your text messages (SMS or MMS)
  • Receive text messages (MMS)

Phone

  • Directly call phone numbers

Photos/Media/Files

  • Modify or delete the contents of your USB storage
  • Test access to protected storage

Camera/Microphone

  • Take pictures and videos
  • Record audio

Wi-Fi connection information

  • View Wi-Fi connections

Device ID and call information

  • Read phone status and identity

Other

  • Receive data from the internet
  • Read instant messages
  • Exchanges messages and receives sync notifications from Google servers
  • Full network access
  • Control vibration
  • Run at startup
  • Use accounts on the device
  • View network connections
  • Control Near Field Communication
  • Read Google service configuration
  • Prevent device from sleeping
  • Change your audio settings
  • Pair with Bluetooth devices
  • Change network connectivity
  • Send sticky broadcast

For comparison's sake, here is the full list from the Facebook Messenger app.

Facebook Messenger app for Android

Identity

  • Find accounts on the device
  • Read your own contact card

Contacts/Calendar

  • Read your contacts

Location

  • Approximate location (network-based)
  • Precise location (GPS and network-based)

SMS

  • Edit your text messages (SMS or MMS)
  • Receive text messages (SMS)
  • Read your text messages (SMS or MMS)
  • Send SMS messages
  • Receive text messages (MMS)

Phone

  • Directly call phone numbers
  • Read call log

Photos/Media/Files

  • Test access to protected storage
  • Modify or delete the contents of your USB storage

Camera/Microphone

  • Take pictures and videos
  • Record audio

Wi-Fi connection information

  • View Wi-Fi connections

Device ID and call information

  • Read phone status and identity

Other

  • Receive data from the internet
  • Download files without notification
  • Run at startup
  • Prevent device from sleeping
  • View network connections
  • Install shortcuts
  • Change your audio settings
  • Read Google service configuration
  • Draw over other apps
  • Full network access
  • Read sync settings
  • Control vibration
  • Change network connectivity

If you look closely, you realize that the Google Hangouts app actually requires even more access to your phone's data and services. But there's a truth that the majority of users aren't readily seeing:

Most of those permissions are standard and required.

Let's break down the Facebook Messenger app to understand why it needs access to certain services.

The Facebook messenger app can do the following things:

  • Chat with other users either with the device keyboard or by using voice input
  • Send audio messages to users
  • Send images and videos to users
  • Use your location

In order for the app to do these things, it must have access to those services or input methods.

One of the biggest rumors surrounding the Facebook Messenger app was that it "listened to your conversations via the device microphone."

However, the Facebook messenger app only uses your device mic when you record audio to send to someone in a chat or when you use speech to text input for chatting. Period. It's not listening to your private conversations. There's no NSA-like wing at the Facebook HQ where a wall of technicians are eavesdropping to know exactly what shenanigans you are up to.

When I write tutorials about how to use Android or apps from the Google Play Store, I always recommend you read the permissions listing. You should read it carefully and logically. Know that certain apps and certain services require specific features from your device. That the Facebook Messenger app needs the grocery list of permissions makes sense:

  • Receive data from the internet (otherwise it won't work)
  • Download files without notification (this is a push service so other users can send you files without you having to download them — makes sense)
  • Run at startup (of course, you don't want to have to start the service every time you reboot your device)
  • Prevent device from sleeping (otherwise you won't get those fun little popup balloons, nor will you get that constant stream of messages)
  • View network connections (the app needs to know when you're on Wi-Fi or 4G)
  • Install shortcuts (otherwise you won't be able to launch the app)
  • Change your audio settings (you want to send audio messages, right?)
  • Read Google service configuration (this is standard)
  • Draw over other apps (so you can add files from other apps — like images from the Gallery)
  • Full network access (so the app can work)
  • Read sync settings (so the app can sync)
  • Control vibration (so you can get notifications in stealth mode)
  • Change network connectivity (it requires the ability to connect to the network)

If you don't know what these are, it would be easy to get overwhelmed by the listing. All it takes, however, is a bit of research to understand that nothing nefarious is going on behind the giant blue curtain that is Facebook. Sure, they may do everything in their power to target ads based on some of your posts; but they are not, in any way, listening to your conversations or watching you via your device camera. Facebook will not steal your identity, your children, or your lunch money.

With that said, don't be afraid to install the Facebook Messenger app and get your social media chat on.

Are you concerned about how apps access your data? If so, how do you deal with the never-ending onslaught of big data against your privacy? Share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

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