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A few years ago, Facebook released Facebook Messenger, a standalone chatting app, to the public. For anyone with a mobile device, Facebook Messenger is likely one of the first apps they put on their phone, which has been downloaded over 1,000,000,000 times. Recent claims, however, that the instant messaging app can access your phone’s microphone, camera, and take direct control over your phone has a lot of people worried.
Facebook Messenger is Spying on You – Are the Claims True?
The Terms of Service (TOS) are undoubtedly overwhelming and request quite a bit of personal data and freedom to take over your mobile device. The following excerpt is taken from a late 2013 article authored by Sam Fiorella, a marketing expert. He gives a long but concise list of just some of the requests found throughout the Facebook Messenger’s TOS. Once you accept their terms, the app can:
Change the state of network connectivity.
Call phone numbers without your intervention. This may result in unexpected charges or calls.
Send SMS messages without your doing, which may result in unexpected charges.
Record audio with using your microphone at any time without your confirmation.
Take pictures and videos with the camera at any time without your confirmation.
Read and save your phone’s call history, including data about incoming and outgoing calls.
Read data about contacts you have saved on your phone, including how often or not you’ve communicated with certain individuals (e.g., call, email, etc.).
Read personal profile information (i.e., your name and contact information) stored on your device. This means the app can identify you and potentially send this information to others.
Access your mobile device’s features. Accepting these terms gives Facebook Messenger permission to determine the phone number and device IDs, whether a call is active, and the remote number connected by a call.
Get a list of accounts known by the phone, which may include other accounts not specific to Facebook Messenger.
What Accepting Facebook Messenger TOS Means for You
After reading something like this, it is extremely easy to jump to assumptions and be frustrated with their seeming violation of privacy. Your feelings are valid. However, there are some factors anyone using these apps must consider first.
For starters, Facebook Messenger’s TOS is not unlike other apps you may already have on your phone. Many apps have similar terms that millions of people blindly accept every single day for the convenience of using a cool, new app. Let’s be honest – when have you ever fully read an app’s terms of service, never mind the privacy policies and end user agreements?
In “The Cost of Reading Privacy Policies” published in I/S: A Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society, researchers Aleecia M. McDonald and Lorrie Faith Cranor measured the length of privacy policies. Some of those things barely anyone reads has as few as 144 words all the way to 7,669 words.
Are the Facebook Messenger TOS Truly Invasive?
In Facebook’s defense, if you’re using the instant messaging app, you have accepted the terms such as the ones briefly outlined above. But to understand these terms in the context of Facebook Messenger, you need to pay attention to the language used.
Many times, throughout the terms, it refers to things like recording audio or using the camera at any time without your confirmation. What worries people is that Facebook Messenger will, for example, start recording at random times without you knowing. But this isn’t necessarily the case.
Messenger requests your permission to access your camera and microphone so you can send audio or video messages. It requests your permission to access your contact list so you can more easily make calls within the app itself. However, without you first agreeing to the terms of service – which aim to make the app easier and more convenient to use – it cannot automatically access cameras, microphones, or contact lists.
Overall, it doesn’t seem that Facebook Messenger’s intent is to invade your privacy. But it’s understandable why many people would be worried about such a possibility. There comes a risk when one company has so much power and potential influence. If anything, as part of the global online community, people should always use these social media apps responsibly and with care.
If you’re sill paranoid, you can comfort yourself by turning off Facebook Messenger’s access to your microphone:
For iPhone users: go into Settings, find Facebook, and slide off the microphone
For Android users: go to Privacy and Safety in Settings, find the microphone section under app permissions, and toggle off Facebook’s access.
For more comfort (or paranoia – you choose), here is Facebook’s statement after hearing out the spying claims…
Facebook Does Not Use Your Phone’s Microphone for Ads or News Feed Stories
Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed. Some recent articles have suggested that we must be listening to people’s conversations in order to show them relevant ads. This is not true. We show ads based on people’s interests and other profile information – not what you’re talking out loud about.
We only access your microphone if you have given our app permission and if you are actively using a specific feature that requires audio. This might include recording a video or using an optional feature we introduced two years ago to include music or other audio in your status updates.