How Messenger Highlighted Facebook’s Privacy Problem

How Messenger Highlighted Facebook’s Privacy Problem

The recent furore about the Facebook Messenger app has unearthed an interesting question: how far are we willing to allow our privacy to be pushed for our social connections? In the case of the Facebook Messenger app, the answer appears to be: “Not as far as Facebook thinks.”

Picture: Karlis Dambrans

For those who are not yet on Facebook (yes, there are some), the social media giant has been asking all users who want to continue sending messages to their Facebook friends on their mobile devices to download a Facebook Messenger app. Facebook is preparing to stop the chat feature on its main Facebook app.

The Messenger app has been available for a while but only recently became compulsory.

Uproar over app permissions

Beyond the complaints about adding another app to the mix, the real controversy emerged when new downloaders discovered that the app, especially on Android, was asking for a whole raft of permissions. These included the ability to read your SMS messages, read your phone call log and access the photo roll on your device.

This seeming intrusion into the privacy of users sent people into an uproar on the internet. An article from the Huffington Post on the dangers of Facebook app permissions went viral this month.

There were plenty of follow-up articles on the situation from the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, famous rumour-debunking site and, ironically, statuses and rants shared ad infinitum on Facebook itself.

Even now, the fallout continues, with many one-star reviews of the app appearing on the Apple app store. Articles continue to appear on many tech sites reassuring users that downloading the app does not give any more permission than many other apps (including the main Facebook app itself).

Facebook tries to ease concerns

For the record, Facebook maintains that it hasn’t done anything wrong and that the permissions that have been requested are standard practice for many apps, both theirs and those of others.

Believe what you will, but of course this then raises the more interesting question: how far are we willing for our privacy to be pushed in this digital age?

Remember that many of these complaints about the Messenger app are coming from the same cohort of people who regularly share details of their lives, such as photos and event invitations, on Facebook.

Even as the social media platform changes and people get frustrated with how Facebook is controlling our lives, people continue to use the site as a social tool.

Who reads privacy policies anyway?

It’s clear that we want to have our cake and eat it too. A study from Carnegie Mellon University in the US suggested that if we were to read the privacy policies of every web service we use just once in a year, it would take a full month of our work time.

Instead, we rely on blind trust and obscurity (“surely they don’t care about me”) to get through these situations. Perhaps this is why people are so upset with the Messenger app; it exposes terms that we all agreed to but would prefer to remain blissfully unaware of.

Of course, some recent stories have come to light that suggest our fears aren’t totally unfounded. For instance, the revelation that Facebook conducted an experiment on the news feed of thousands of its users shows the company has no qualms about using our data.

Or the more recent story by Wired of the journalist who committed to “Like” everything on Facebook for two days, only to find his friends slowly pushed out of his news feed and replaced with corporate sponsorship and left/right-wing political opinion.

The true cost of connecting online

These articles are beginning to show the dark side of social networking. A new movie by director Jason Reitman promises to do even more, showing how people are connected but also conflicted about their social life. The movie, Men, Women & Children, follows the digital life of several different participants as they navigate the digital world of the 21st century.

So, what to do? The internet and social networking allow us to remain connected, but it comes at a price to our privacy, which some are apparently not willing to pay, or at least not willing to acknowledge.

Perhaps the problem will solve itself, as digital native children replace their digital immigrant parents in the world of the 21st century, and our expected level of privacy changes. Or perhaps we will all tire of Facebook and social networking, move away from such platforms and no longer have this issue.

But more likely one day somebody will realise that just as the industrial age needed regulation on roads and manufacturing, so too does the information age need regulation on the use of information.

And when that day comes, perhaps we all need to stop relying on blind trust and take the time out of our year to read the new privacy legislation.The ConversationMichael Cowling is Senior Lecturer & Discipline Leader, Mobile Computing & Applications at Central Queensland University. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


  • What to do? Just quit using Facebook. Delete your account. You won’t miss out on anything. Just SMS/call/email people you care about and stop get back hours of wasted time watching cat videos. No one needs Facebook.

    • SMS’s cost money, and people under 30 typically don’t reply to emails with any urgency at all, if at all. Facebook chat is a great service which allows you to chat with your friends digitally. I’ll keep using it.

      • @dknighs: If you make more than about $30 of calls a month on your mobile, SMS doesn’t cost money. Seriously, either you don’t use your mobile phone, or you’re on the wrong plan.

        • Doesn’t cost me money, but no idea if it will cost the other person money. People don’t generally have full conversations via SMS, it’s short and sweet.

          • As if your personality, privacy and time are anywhere near a worthy sacrifice for slightly eased and cheaper communication.

            I deleted my account a year ago and have never looked back. The ambit of my social life may have shrunk, but it has greatly improved too. Friends don’t require friends to have a Facebook account to be friends with them. Ask them to get whatsapp, viber or an email account. The ones who agree are your real friends.

          • +1 on Whatsapp.

            I pretty much solely use it for text and pic/video messaging so there is no need for Facebook messenger.

            However as Facebook now owns them, I am dreading the day they merge it all together.

            Had Facebook, it worked well as when it went public I was about to leave school, however I gradually used it less and less, especially due to the dramatic changes and constant privacy revisions.

            Do I miss some of the social interaction, kinda, but its only really with people I barely talk to anyways. I found as well that while my ‘pool’ of friends got smaller, the quality of it is overall much better.

          • Boy I hope you don’t use Google services. Or to a lesser evil, Microsoft or Apple services…

    • In every conversation about Facebook, there’s always one bore with this same, tedious advice. It may surprise you to hear that we all know already that getting off Facebook altogether is one solution to any problem with Facebook. But guess what? We don’t want to get off Facebook entirely and that’s why we’re reading articles like this.

      Presumably when you hear about a car crash you advise everyone stop driving. Sound advice in theory, but impractical, unhelpful and silly in real life.

    • Nice work, Captain Obvious. Useless “advice” like this doesn’t help. I bet you believed the HuffPost article.

  • I find it ridiculous that people are getting into an uproar about this. It’s like they don’t think that Google/Apple are already recording everything that goes through their phones

    • Exactly!! There is sooooo much other tracking going on by any website who partners with Microsoft and has an account (and there really is a large portion of people with these) that when I heard the stick about Facebook I laughed.

    • When one of the permissions is the ability to “change your password” I think that’s deserving of some uproar.

  • This more a specifically Facebook problem: a lack of trust of Facebook. They have such a history (unmentioned in this article) of overstepping their bounds, that this disclosure of perfectly ordinary terms, at least by Android standards, becomes blown out of proportion.
    Facebook has sort of learned their lesson from this past and is trying to assure people that it is doing things the proper way, but they have terrible communication skills (having spent too much time with that “like” button, they truly don’t get it when people don’t like something).
    I am no apologist for Facebook but I know the difference between when they are not listening and when they are not paying attention.

    • I mention the history of Facebook, specifically the experiment on people’s news feeds and also their reputation for curating your news feed based on what you ‘like’, but I agree that the problem here is not that Facebook oversteps, but rather that Messenger highlighted it (see the headline).

      I don’t think that Facebook has learnt their lesson at all, I think they are trying to get away with as much as they can without getting lynched whilst simultaneously trying to make money off of our personal data. You only need to listen to anything Zuckerberg says to realise this.

  • If we could now have a decently balanced article regarding this, rather than this one pandering to the tinfoil hat wearers, that’d be great. Thanks.

    • I don’t think I pander to the tinfoil hat wearers, do I? I acknowledge that there is a concern out there in the populous (just look at how many articles are on this issue at the moment), and question how best to strike a balance between wanting to use the service and wanting our privacy protected. If you’re suggesting that a ‘balanced’ article would be something indicating that there is no problem here, then I think you aren’t paying enough attention to how concerned this Messenger issue seems to be making the ‘average joe’.

  • Finally someone addresses the fact that the Facebook app already has those permissions! I keep seeing people who have the Facebook app complain about the permissions of the Facebook Messenger app *facepalm*.

  • This is why I like to use custom roms, one of the custom roms I use, gives me the option to disable access to those permissions, like gps, camera and recording.etc
    it works great, and I can still use Facebook.
    However I do not think this is possible on iOS, so that’s another point for Android in my books.

  • I dont want to use the facebook messenger app based on that fact that now there is two apps on my device where there was one before. Two apps for one website? Crazy! Why the split? It worked fine before!

Show more comments

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!