Most of us, at one time or another, have accepted Terms of Service agreements for websites or applications without even reading them. It’s so commonplace, South Park made an entire hilarious episode about it. Most of the time, terms and conditions agreements have a lot to do with avoiding legal problems for the app developers. Many terms and conditions also inform you they’re collecting (usually) anonymous data for the purposes of both improving their own application or selling demographic and usage information to advertisers.
Recently, the internet has been buzzing about Facebook’s Messenger. It was originally released in 2011 as an addition to the standard Facebook Mobile application. It runs faster and uses less memory, bandwidth, and battery life because it doesn’t require the whole Facebook app in order to work. Facebook has begun transitioning all their mobile users to download the Messenger app to use for their messaging services. Soon, the Facebook app is no longer going to support chat and in order to access your direct messages, you’ll have to use the Messenger app.
The change has begun, and certain corners of the internet are upset about it.
This 2013 article at the Huffington Post explains at length the “insidiousness” of the app’s Terms of Service, listing numerous “permissions” the app requires you accept, such as:
- Allows the app to call phone numbers without your intervention. This may result in unexpected charges or calls. Malicious apps may cost you money by making calls without your confirmation.
- Allows the app to send SMS messages. This may result in unexpected charges. Malicious apps may cost you money by sending messages without your confirmation.
- Allows the app to record audio with microphone. This permission allows the app to record audio at any time without your confirmation.
- Allows the app to take pictures and videos with the camera. This permission allows the app to use the camera at any time without your confirmation.
Now, those look like some pretty invasive permissions, and since we already know the NSA does some spying on us, it’s not surprising we’re nervous about where our data is going and how they can access more. But this isn’t the first or last app to have these sorts of permissions. There are also completely reasonable explanations for why applications on your phone want this.
From the Messenger app, in the midst of typing my friend a message I can:
- Take a photo/video of what I’m doing.
- Add a photo of something I’m talking about.
- Record a voice note.
- Go to their profile on Facebook.
- Call them right from the application.
- Have the message I was typing automatically save when I have to take a call in the middle of it.
All of these things require the sorts of permissions the Messenger app and others ask for. Both for the fluidity of the app’s various features, and so you aren’t bombarded hourly with “will you allow Messenger app to utilize your phone’s call function?” every time you make or receive a call.
Though I don’t discount the fact that the US government is doing a lot more spying on its own citizens than I think is necessary (or constitutional), it’s important to recognize that Facebook is a private company, one that now has a five-star rating from the Electronic Frontier Foundation for protecting your data from government requests. Facebook itself doesn’t have any incentive to secretly record your calls or access your phone’s camera for some insidious purposes—Facebook is a service, and it wants to make money, not blackmail its users.
Obviously, everyone can make up their own minds about whether they wish to download and accept the Terms of Service for the Messenger app or any others. It’s simply in everyone’s best interest to understand that this isn’t new, it’s not completely outrageous, and this isn’t a final nail in the coffin for privacy. It’s just a private application, with a Terms of Service agreement I’ll bet you haven’t read.