Don’t Freak Out About the Facebook Messenger App

You might hate being forced to use Facebook Messenger — but that doesn’t mean the app is invading your privacy or part of some vast conspiracy to track all of your actions.

In the days since Facebook started requiring iPhone and Android users to download the stand-alone Facebook Messenger app to continue chatting with friends and family members, the backlash has been swift.

As Facebook is well aware, its users do not like change (see News Feed, Beacon ads, Timeline, OpenGraph, the Instagram terms of service changes, and every design change in the company’s 10-year history). So it’s not surprising to see Facebook Messenger as the number one app in the App Store (because everyone is being prompted to download it), or that it has a 1-star rating (because everyone is being prompted to download it).

See also: 20 Things Your Most Annoying Friends Do on Facebook

This time, the backlash has turned into a melee over user permissions and privacy fears, thanks to incorrect reports from technical neophytes. As a result, users already upset about having to download a new app are unnecessarily freaking out over the user permissions associated with the Facebook Messenger app — primarily because the app wants permission to access your camera and microphone.

As much as that makes it sound like an NSA spying tool, the Messenger app does not do anything or ask for anything different than the regular Facebook app. It’s also not any different from any other messaging app out there. Here’s why, and what much of your Facebook feed is getting wrong:

Setting the record straight on Facebook Messenger permissions

Thanks largely to an old article in the Huffington Post and a new article from a radio station in Houston, Facebook users who are already upset about Facebook Messenger are being led to believe that the new Messenger app allows Facebook to spy on users, record all of their movements and do other insidious, nasty, things.

The articles’ authors seem to not understand how Android’s app permissions work. That’s understandable: Android app permissions are kind of a mess. It’s one reason Google is going to great lengths to make app permissions easier to understand in Android L.

What’s not OK is firing up millions of users into being afraid that a messenger app is acting inappropriately because it requires access to a phone’s microphone to send voice messages.

As a Facebook rep told Mashable, nothing at all has changed in its Facebook Messenger permissions. If you installed the Facebook or Facebook Messenger app in the past, you agreed to give the app the same access that a person installing the app now would receive.

To explain further, Facebook has this web page setup to explain the app permissions requested by Facebook Messenger.

Understanding Android app permissions

The heart of the confusion is the way Android’s app permissions work. When you install a new app from Google Play, a list of app permissions requested from the application are displayed for the user.

The permissions can look scary, especially if you read the various descriptions involved. It’s important for users to look at application permissions before installing an app, for users who are unfamiliar with the language of Android’s app permissions — or with how web services work — it can be scary.

Apple, by contrast, is able to show users more granular permissions for various permissions as they are needed. That means that when you install an app, a set number of permissions — such as Internet access — are a given. Other activity requires consent.

Google is aware of this, and the company continues to improve how app permissions are displayed.

Indeed, if you compare how Facebook Messenger’s permissions are displayed today, versus how they looked when the Huffington Post article was written, the experience is already vastly different.

Breaking down Facebook Messenger’s permissions

Let’s look at every single permission that the Facebook Messenger app requests and explain why that request makes sense.

This is how the list looks when you install the app from Google Play as of August 11:

FB Messenger Android

Image: Screenshot Google Play

I’m grabbing all of these permissions directly from the Google Play entry for Facebook Messenger. Click on the “View details” link under Permissions in the “Additional Information” section to follow along.


What it’s asking for:

  • find accounts on the device

  • read your own contact card


If you already have Facebook installed on your phone, the messenger app can grab the account information already on your device. It can also read the contact card you have created for yourself within Android.

In other words, it can let you sign in to Facebook Messenger with the Facebook account already on your phone.


What it’s asking for:

  • read your contacts


This will let you send a message to someone already in your address book. To do that, the app needs permission to access your contacts.


What it’s asking for:

  • approximate location (network-based)

  • precise location (GPS and network-based)


Your phone can give your location in more than one way. One way is via GPS (which you may not always have turned on), and another gives approximate location based on your network. The app needs access to your location to let you send that location to others, or list it in posts.


What it’s asking for:

  • 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)


If you add your phone number to your Messenger account, Facebook uses an SMS message to verify that it is you. You can also send SMS and MMS messages to people who aren’t on Messenger via the Facebook Messenger app. But to do that, the app needs to be able to send and receive messages.


What it’s asking for:

  • directly call phone numbers

  • read call log


So you can call users directly from the app if you choose. It also means that if someone from Facebook Messenger calls you, you can know who is calling.


What it’s asking for:

  • test access to protected storage

  • modify or delete the contents of your USB storage


To help speed up the app and make things faster, the Facebook Messenger app can use part of the storage built into your phone to cache certain items and photos. That way, you don’t have to download the same photos from your friends every single time.


What it’s asking for:

  • take pictures and videos

  • record audio


So you can send photos to users from within Facebook and record audio messages. Without the ability to record audio, your videos would be silent.

Wi-Fi connection information

What it’s asking for:

  • view Wi-Fi connections


So that Facebook can connect to a network if you don’t have cell service (or are on a tablet). You need to be able to be online to use Facebook Messenger. That’s why it’s asking for network permissions.

Device ID & call information

What it’s asking for:

  • read phone status and identity


So that it can help initiate outgoing voice calls.


What it’s asking for:

  • Receive data from the Internet

Facebook needs to be able to download data from the Internet. Makes sense, right?

  • Download files without notifications

This way the Facebook Messenger app can update itself or add features without having to require a total app-update. It also lets photos download in the background.

  • Run at startup

This lets the app run at startup, so that you don’t have to remember to load the app each time you restart. What good is a Messenger app that isn’t active when you need it?

  • Prevent device from sleeping

This means that if you are using the app to take a photo or video, the app can override the sleep timer on your phone so that you don’t get locked out.

  • View network connections

Again, this helps the app find out how it can get data.

  • Install shortcuts

This lets Facebook Messenger put a shortcut on your home screen.

  • Change your audio settings

This lets the app raise or lower the volume of of alerts.

  • Read Google service configuration

This lets the app know if you’ve signed in, or are signed in other places.

  • Draw over other apps

Remember Chat Heads, the faces that pop up over other applications when you get a message?

  • Full network access

Again, this is an absolute requirement for any messaging app.

  • Read sync settings

This lets the app know about which messages you’ve read and which haven’t, so they show up the same way other places.

  • Control vibration

This lets you control the vibration for your Messenger alerts.

  • Change network connectivity

This lets the app move to a better network if that is available, or switch from WiFi to cellular data (and back).

None of this is new or unique

From time to time, Facebook requests more permissions from the system to perform certain tasks. Generally, the company explains why those permissions are being requested.

Nothing that Facebook is requesting for Facebook Messenger is new. If you installed the app last year, you’ve approved all of these permissions already.

We can argue about whether users should be able to approve certain permissions individually — and that’s a good discussion to have. But that is up to Google, not Facebook. When it comes to Android app permissions, Facebook has to play by Google’s rules.

Until Google has a better way of managing permissions — or takes Apple’s approach of offering specific permissions in context — the scary list is what users are left with.

But that doesn’t mean Facebook Messenger is evil, or spying on you, or tracking your every move, or indeed doing anything different from any other messaging app on the planet.

It’s not unusual to be creeped out by the amount of information Facebook, Google and other companies are collecting on their users — but this specific case doesn’t add anything to that debate.

If you’re already using Facebook, the company knows a lot about you. Having access to a few settings on your phone so that it can actually send off a text message doesn’t change that.

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