Facebook Messenger: Much ado about nothing

Yes, Facebook Messenger wants to know all about you. What did you expect? It's a Facebook app!
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Enough already with all the whining about Facebook Messenger, Facebook's new standalone mobile messaging app!  It's Facebook! They make their money from watching everything you do on the net! What did you expect their new messaging-only app to do?

Facebook Messenger: No less, nor no more, respecting of your privacy than ever.

If you're late to this tempest in a teapot, in April, Facebook announced it would kill off the chat feature in its Android, Windows Phone, and iOS apps. Instead, it would require users to download Facebook Messenger to chat with friends. Facebook argued that the reason for this move is that the Messenger app is 20 percent faster then messaging using the all-in-one Facebook app.

Besides speeding up your messaging, the latest Facebook Messenger app also lets users send photos and make free Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) calls to your Facebook friends. In short, it's just another app-based instant messaging client with VoIP. It's not all that different from the Google Hangouts app or any of a dozen other IM apps. 

Why all the upset?

Well for starters Facebook requires you to add this new app.

Change! We are so scared of change. You'd think with Facebook we'd be used to it by now. It feels like they change their interface and privacy rules with every new moon. 

The problem is that you can still use Facebook messaging without Facebook Messenger. All you have to do is use your smartphone or tablet Web browser and go to Facebook's mobile site. That's it. No fuss, no muss.

Related: Six ways to protect yourself from the NSA and other eavesdroppers

More concretely, people are ticked off that Facebook is demanding a lot of permissions from your device. These include using your microphone, looking at your contact list, "snooping" on your text messages, and tracking your location.

Guys, guys, guys. Facebook uses the microphone for VoIP and voice-recordings. What do you expect it to use?

The contact list? Hello! How you can talk to your "friends," if the app doesn't know who your friends are?

As for peeking at your texts, how do you think texting works anyway? Texts do not fly from one phone to another without stopping. Instead they go to an Short Message Service (SMS) server where they may or may not be archived. For example in 2010, Verizon kept texts for up to five days. It hasn't got any better since then. 

Last, but not least, many applications track your locations now. Of course, Facebook want to know if you're closer to a McDonalds or a Starbucks. Facebook lives and dies by advertising and they want to know every last thing they can about us. 

In short, this is business as usual for Facebook. If you really care about your privacy you shouldn't be on Facebook period.

You do know, for example, that if you're a Facebook member Facebook tracks you on other Web sites?

Here's the simple truth: Facebook, and its apps, have never been private. All that's happening with Facebook Messenger is that people are, once more, realizing how little privacy they have online. In a month, no one will remember any of this and you'll be messaging with your friends and colleagues the same as always.

There's nothing new about this. I first wrote about IM privacy issues in 2001 when mobile computing meant a five pound laptop running Windows XP or an Apple iBook.

You say you want IM, VoIP, and video-conferencing with real privacy? Then, just like in 2001, you need to run your own such services with programs such as IBM Sametime, BigAnt, Microsoft Lync, or an Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP)-based, open-source instant messaging servers such as Openfire or Prosody. If you use any public IM or texting network, you are vulnerable to its provider's privacy whims.

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