Facebook Messenger: As scary as some think?

Facebook’s recent announcement that messages will now only be available on mobile via the app Facebook Messenger has left users of the social media site up in arms and concerned about their privacy. Some view the change as being “forced” to download the Messenger app.

With the removal of  the Messenger function of Facebook’s main mobile app, download of the standalone Messenger app is now required in addition to the Facebook app, in order for users to have the same mobile functionality and be able to access Facebook messages on their phone.

Why the change?

According to Facebook, the split will allow for more streamlined development of both Messenger and Facebook apps.

Facebook did not release a blog post on the change, as it generally does with larger announcements regarding functionality, and instead notified users within the Facebook app, on the site itself and via email for some Facebook users.

The Messenger app has blasted to the top of the Apple app store chart, holding the number one free spot. Despite its popularity, the app also currently has a 1-star rating (out of a possible 5), and reviews are overwhelmingly negative. The issue at large seems to be the fact that users felt compelled to download it in the first place, and there are privacy concerns.

Messenger is also the top free app for Android devices, and currently has 4.3 stars in the Google Play store. This may be because the rating for an app in the Google Play store considers all versions of the app released, and is not based on reviews of the latest version of an app.

A December Huffington Post blog article about the “insidiousness of Facebook Messenger’s terms of service” has recently gone viral, fueling Facebook user concern about Messenger privacy issues.

Facebook addressed the post, and told the Wall Street Journal that the highlighted concerns are overblown and based on misinformation.

So, should social media users be worried about privacy when using the Facebook Messenger app?

Here’s what we know:

In a help center article on the topic, Facebook addressed concerns of Android users worried about some of the language of the permissions the app asks for, upon download. According to Facebook, the language isn’t something they have control over, noting that Android controls the way permissions are named.

Android Messenger app permissions, and what they are actually used for, according to Facebook:

  • Take pictures and videos: This permission allows you to take photos and videos within the Messenger app to easily send to your friends and other contacts
  • Record audio: This permission allows you to send voice messages, make free voice calls, and send videos within Messenger
  • Directly call phone numbers: This permission allows you to call a Messenger contact by tapping on the person's phone number, found in a menu within your message thread with the person
  • Receive text messages (SMS): If you add a phone number to your Messenger account, this allows you to confirm your phone number by finding the confirmation code that we send via text message
  • Read your contacts: This permission allows you to add your phone contacts as Messenger contacts if you choose to do so. You can always stop syncing your phone contacts by going to your Messenger settings.

For Apple users, these permissions come up one at a time, during use of the app, and users can decline individual permissions (though they will then not have access to features requiring that permission).

Android users have to agree to all of the permissions at once in order to download, but that’s more of an Android issue than it is a Facebook Messenger-specific problem.

Other users are concerned with how data collected by the apps is being used. Facebook offers a look at its data collection policy on its site.

It’s similar to how many websites collect data on users, and users of the Messenger app are subject to the same policies regular Facebook users are (basically, if you’re using Facebook, using Messenger isn’t going to allow Facebook to access any more of your data than you’ve already given them permission to, other than the phone permissions required to run the app).

When push comes to shove, it seems downloading the Messenger app may be more of a pain than a privacy issue.

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