Facebook Rejects New Snooping Claims

John Lister's picture

Facebook says there's no truth to claims that its Messaging app is spying on smartphone users. It says the confusion over wiretapping stems from security measures on iPhones and Android handsets.

The issue involves the tool for Facebook users to exchange messages with one another. Whereas computer users are able to message other members through the Facebook website, this same feature is no longer supported in the official Facebook app that runs on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Instead, these users must install and run a separate app called Messenger. The Messenger app has been available since 2011, but was previously an optional extra. According to Facebook, having a separate app makes messaging faster and offers more features to smartphone users.

The new Messenger app has already received negative reaction from users who felt it was an unnecessary 'extra', and that messaging should remain part of the Facebook app. Then, things got worse when rumors began flying about security breaches purportedly related to the Messenger app.

Messenger App Accused of Listening In

Recent rumors circulated online, suggesting that the Facebook Messenger app is capable of secretly monitoring users via the microphone and camera, sending text messages at whim, and making voice calls without the user's consent.

Facebook has now come forward and denies the rumors, stating that "If you want to send a selfie to a friend, the app needs permission to turn on your phone's camera and capture that photo. We don't turn on your camera or microphone when you aren't using the app."

It has also said that "Some have claimed that the app is always using your phone's camera and microphone to see and hear what you're doing. These reports aren't true." (Source: facebook.com)

Android Security Setup Raises Alarm

It's suggested that the majority of rumors have come about because of the way that the Android security system is provisioned. On Android handsets, access to hardware and software features is blocked by default for apps. Users must then approve or deny a series of "permissions," each covering a different category of access.

The problem is that some of the categories are quite broad and were triggered by the Facebook app. For example, to allow users to take pictures directly from Messenger, it needed to access a permission that covered starting up and using the camera. Some users, when asked by their phone to grant this permission, misread or misinterpreted it as meaning that Messenger would continually monitor the camera. (Source: yahoo.com)

From a technical standpoint, Facebook's explanation stands up, and the app doesn't have an unusual level of access. The problem is that Facebook isn't actually saying it "can't" access the camera at any time or initiate calls, but rather that it "won't" do so. That could be a tough sell to those users who are already minded to be suspicious about Facebook's behavior.

Facebook Messaging via Website Still Possible on Mobile

It should be noted that mobile device users can avoid the Messenger app altogether, and instead send messages by visiting the Facebook website on their browser. The downsides are that this can be quite fiddly, especially on a phone screen, and that using this method means you won't get automatic alerts when somebody sends you a message. Of course, that's not a problem if you find such alerts annoying.

What's Your Opinion?

Do you accept Facebook's explanation of the privacy situation? Did you realize apps could have such access to smartphone features? Do you use the Facebook Messenger App, and if so, has this incident made you rethink about using it?

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