Facebook Messenger app: “We know what you did last night…”

Published: August 9, 2014
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When we download this app on our mobile phones, we essentially agree in principle to let it “spy” on us.

We live in an increasingly digital world and depend on our smartphones as a daily driver for staying informed, keeping in touch with our family and friends, and also for many other wide ranging applications. Facebook is a large part of our daily lives; while it helps us stay connected socially, there might be something more up its sleeves than we would have thought.

Recently, it has been discovered that the seemingly ubiquitous and unassuming Facebook Messenger app for mobile phones is more than it has previously let on. This application has been downloaded well over one billion times on Android and iPhone respective mobile platforms by users. To put it in layman terms, when we download this app on our mobile phones, we essentially agree in principle to let it “spy” on us.

Written below is the exact word-for-word excerpt of the permissions of the app that you naively choose to agree upon when downloading it:

  • Allows the app to change the state of network connectivity.
  • 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 at any time without your confirmation.
  • Allows the app to take pictures and videos with the camera at any time without your confirmation.
  • Allows the app to read you phone’s call log, including data about incoming and outgoing calls. This permission allows apps to save your call log data, and malicious apps may share call log data without your knowledge.
  • Allows the app to read data about your contacts stored on your phone, including the frequency with which you’ve called, emailed, or communicated in other ways with specific individuals.
  • Allows the app to read personal profile information stored on your device, such as your name and contact information. This means the app can identify you and may send your profile information to others.
  • Allows the app to access the phone features of the device. This allows the app to determine the phone number and device IDs, whether a call is active, and the remote number connected by a call.
  • Allows the app to get a list of accounts known by the phone. This may include any accounts created by applications you have installed.

Alarmed yet? Well, we all ought to be!

We’re basically, to put it mildly, handing over our private lives, on a silver platter, to these social media behemoths without even realising it. Lesson here is to always read the fine print and the terms and conditions involved when one is downloading these social and messaging apps from the respective app stores.

Agreed, who has the time and more importantly patience to read lengthy and cumbersome ‘Terms of Services’? But let this be a lesson us all. We should at least make an effort to browse through them quickly to ascertain and make sure of the fact that we are not unintentionally agreeing to something that we have not signed up for and feel uncomfortable with.

On the other hand, more stringent and rigorous regulatory measure should be imposed and enacted by the likes of Google, Microsoft and Apple to guarantee that within the confines of their mobile software eco-systems, the end user (which is us) ultimately has complete control over the information or content on their mobile devices.

We should also bear in mind the fact that Facebook has a blemished history when it comes to protecting the privacy of their users. In addition, Facebook has now made it mandatory for mobile users to use its standalone messaging app (case in point) if they want to message and communicate with people on Facebook. They will also remove the integrated messaging facility from within the main Facebook app itself; we should take this information with a pinch of salt.

Ultimately, it is a given that there’s no such thing as a “free lunch”, these free apps do come with their share of caveats and strings attached. However, the amount of privacy we’re sacrificing in lieu of these social apps is just unparalleled to anything we’ve seen before. From access to our media content (photos, videos) to our call logs, texts, even contacts and emails are just too much. Imagine all of this information compiled in a database at the mercy of advertisers, law enforcing agencies or potential hackers who can exploit and eavesdrop in our devices via these loopholes.

We may not realise the ramification and consequences of such things now, especially in developing countries like Pakistan. But rest assured, if this goes unchecked just imagine how brazen these mobile app developers will be and how easily they would be able to extract private information from our mobile devices just because it takes us too long to read the fine print.

Brace yourselves, for scary times lay ahead!

Salman Junejo

Salman Junejo

The author is an agriculturist by profession and runs an agriculture company by the name of GRJ AGRO(www,grjagro.com). He has a family background in politics and agriculture. He tweets @salmanjunejo (twitter.com/salmanjunejo)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.