Privacy Concerns Over Facebook's New Messenger App: What's the Big Problem?

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Facebook Messenger

Facebook used to let you message friends through the Facebook webpage and single Facebook mobile app. You logged in once to the mobile app and you could browse your friends timelines and chat with them via messenger functionality.

A few months ago, Facebook announced their new standalone messaging app called unsurprisingly - Facebook Messenger. The new app makes it easier to communicate with your friends and still does it for free.

News broke that soon Facebook would force users to use the new app for messaging functionality.

So why the change? If you think about a company like Facebook, their money is in user analytics. Figure out what users like to do and then figure out a way to monetize that. I would suspect that the Messenger app was built from the ground up to track user habits.

Of course Facebook will try to give users better functionality, but behind the scenes is a complex web of analytics. Read through the list of permissions and you can start to get an idea of what Facebook will be able to track.

Here is a partial list of permissions from the Android version of the app:

  • Read your contacts
  • Read your location via GPS\Wi-Fi
  • View Wi-Fi Connections
  • Send\Receive\Edit Text Messages – both SMS and MMS
  • Read Call Log
  • Download files without notification
  • Full network access

Just looking over the list of “other” permissions and you’ll find it’s a bit intimidating. Granted each of these permissions is necessary to run the app and use it to its’ fullest, but is it worth it? For a simple messaging app Facebook sure is asking a lot from their end users.

Has Facebook Gone Overboard?

Although there are a lot of permissions needed to use Facebook Messenger, is it really any different from other social apps? If we look at the popular messaging application Skype you’ll find a very similar set of permissions – reading SMS, reading and modifying contacts, network access, location access. Other seemingly innocuous applications – say Accuweather have deep access to the device as well.

App developers aren’t writing apps for fun. They also aren’t doing it to be evil. Just like a restaurant needs to make customers happy, app developers need to do the same. Abuse those permissions and your customers will stop coming back.

In order for an app like Messenger to allow you to contact your friends, it needs to know your contacts. In order for it to tell others where you are, it needs access to your GPS. The permissions requested serve a double purpose – give users advanced functionality while also letting the company track user habits.

The concern now is perception. Will users put up with seemingly excessive permissions?

Will Users Go Along?

Judging by the app store reviews for Android and Apple, end users aren’t so happy. Although the Android version of the app currently is rated just under 4 stars, the Apple version is getting a trashing and only has 1.5 stars. From a practical level, users complain about the need to have a second app installed and logged in. Instead of just the Facebook app eating up battery, users that choose to use both apps will have both running at all times

The media is jumping on this topic too – especially in regards to the privacy concerns. Mainstream sites like the Wall Street Journal and Huffington Post are running pieces related to Messenger’s privacy.

Should you uninstall Facebook Messenger if you’ve already installed it? That’s up to you. Make sure you read through the permissions the app is requesting and know that a company like Facebook has access to that data. If the usefulness of the app outweighs your privacy concerns, continue to use it. If you don’t find you need the functionality just remove the app and stick to more traditional methods like carrier based SMS.

The good news is that people are starting to become more aware of privacy and as the saying goes – people tend to vote with their dollars, or in this case their downloads.