So there’s an article bouncing around the Internet, found here. In it, author Nick Russo flips out over the permissions required by Facebook’s “new” Messenger app. Normally, this kind of thing doesn’t bother me. People who don’t know how technology works will often respond this way when confronted with something scary-sounding. The problem I have is the number of people I see sharing it on Facebook and taking it as gospel. It’s not. It’s alarmist as shit, and it’s not helping anything.
Before I break this down part-by-part, I want to get this out of the way: I am not writing this to defend Facebook. I’m not a big fan of it, I don’t like the way they seem to be trying to take over essential functions of my phone, and I was much happier when Facebook and Messenger were contained in one app.
There’s nothing wrong with what Facebook is doing here, the sky is not falling, you are not any more compromised than you already were, and now we’re going to talk about why. Russo mentions a lot of scary-sounding permission needs for this app. First let’s talk about what permissions actually are. Permissions are what they sound like: you allowing a particular app to do something on your device. All these things are presented to you, the user, because they are optional. You have all the power here. If you don’t want the Messenger app to have access to your contacts, that’s fine… as long as you also don’t want to take advantage of functionality in the app which requires it. Similarly, you can decide you don’t want the app to have access to your photos and camera. Again – fine! So long as you don’t want to send pictures from your camera roll or from your camera. You denying permission is you telling the app, “No, I don’t want you to be able to use those things” and deciding for yourself “No, I don’t want to use these features”.
To the left, you’ll see the Privacy setting screen on iOS 7. See all these precious, sensitive aspects of your life your phone can track? You can disable access to any or all of them from any app at any time. There is not a single app in the App Store which will uninstall itself if you turn these things off. Promise.
So, why does Messenger want access to all of these things? Let’s take them one by one!
Location Services: Do you ever notice when you’re talking to someone on FB, it might say next to their message “sent from blah blah cool place you wish you were”? Yeah, it does that because the app has access to location services (GPS) on the phone. Facebook’s marketing pitch for this is it allows friends to see if they are in close proximity so they can meet up and do whatever it is cool, young people do when they meet up. Either way, totally optional.
Contacts: Like most of these, Facebook actually tells you exactly what this is for when you first set up the app: it’s so you can text any of your contacts directly from the app. If Nick Russo had stopped for a minute and thought about this, he might realize it’s actually a pretty cool feature since sending text messages costs people without an unlimited texting plan money and using the Messenger app allows people to skirt their provider and send unlimited, free text messages. This access also lets you talk to contacts on your phone who you might not necessarily have as friends on Facebook.
Photos: Like I mentioned earlier, if you want to send pictures from your camera roll to someone through Messenger, you have to tell the app it’s okay to do so. The way iOS and Android work, and you should be thankful for this, is an app can’t do those things unless you tell it it’s okay. If you don’t want to send pictures to people, don’t allow it access.
Microphone: A newer feature of the Messenger app allows you to send voice notes/memos to your friends. iMessage in iOS 8 will allow a similar, arguably better, version of this feature when it launches in a month or two. Once again, this requires the app to use part of your phone – in this case, the microphone. You’re probably getting this by now, but if not, this is totally optional.
You might notice I skipped over calendars, reminders, bluetooth sharing, and motion activity. I skipped those because the app does not request and does not have access to these things. It’s worth mentioning because this is a responsible thing we should be noticing. Facebook has not simply requested blanket access to all the services your phone has to offer, it has specifically requested access to parts of your phone which will enable new functionality on the app. In other words, the more you allow it access to, the more fun things it can do for you. It’s up to you where you want to draw that line between functionality and creepiness.
The last point I want to touch on is what many of you might still be asking: why? Why is Facebook adding all of these features to their app when iOS and Android already have most of these things baked right into the OS already? They are doing this because the operating system itself has become a competitive space. When iOS first launched, apps were not allowed which replicated functionality already found in the OS. This allowed Apple to cement loyalty to their camera app, their messenger app, their calendar, and so on. As iOS evolves, and the same can be said for Android, more functionality is opened up to developers. Facebook makes money off of data related to you and how you use your device, so it benefits them to have you using their app for as many things you would normally use your phone’s native apps for as possible. That’s the “why”.
When a developer gets access to a new API, they’re going to use it. Sometimes their app will duplicate, or compete with, functionality already found on the phone. This is a good thing. It’s a great thing. It keeps Apple and Google adding new and exciting things to their mobile operating systems because if they don’t, someone else will. Messenger is a perfect example. The voice notes thing? Messenger has had it for months, and it’s only coming to iMessage upon the launch of iOS 8. Facebook is hoping you will already be familiar with their interpretation of it and not really care about Apple’s. That’s competition within an OS, and it’s good for all of us.