Android Users: Facebook May Have Read Your Text MessagesBy: Drew Bowling - February 27, 2012
You may not know it, Android users, but when you installed the Facebook mobile app on to your phone, you gave Facebook access to read your text messages. This fact rose to the surface yesterday after a report from the The Sunday Times revealed Facebook may or may not have been reading the text messages stored on the phones of Android users. And while scandal immediately begins to simmer with the start of those words, Facebook wasn’t exactly concealing this info as the company deferred to the Permissions page on Android Market and maintains that it didn’t do anything wrong.
Facebook states that the reason it asked for the permission to read text messagers in the first place was because Facebook is prepping to launch its own messaging service. While it’s likely that most people missed this detail, Facebook actually – and very simply – states in the Permissions tab of Android Market that by installing the app the user thereby grants Facebook access to read their text messages:
Facebook purports that it didn’t do anything wrong and dismissed the claims of spying on app users’ text messages as “creative conspiracy theorizing.” While Facebook may have a tight defense in the fact that they clearly stated in the Permissions that the app gives Facebook access to text messages stored on the phone, the company seems to be pushing back rather aggressively to the quasi-revelation. Facebook issued a statement to Business Insider explaining everything. It’s an interesting exercise in triangulation, so let’s take a piecemeal examination of Facebook’s defense and what is really wrong with it (the bits from Facebook’s statement are in italics).
There is no reading of user text messages.
Okay then, but what about that permission you stated on the Android Market?
On the Android App store, the Facebook app permissions include SMS read/write.
As evidenced above, we’ve already established this. Two sentences into the statement, though, Facebook’s already contradicted itself. Is it reading texts or is it not reading texts? Quandary abounds.
The reason it is on there is because we have done some testing (not with the general public) of products that require the SMS part of the phone to talk to the Facebook App. That’s what the read&write refers to – the line of communication needed to integrate the two things.
Hm. Well, okay, that makes sense, I suppose. “Not with the general public” is kind of cryptic, though.
Lots of communications apps use these permissions. Think of all those apps that act as replacements to the build-in sms software.
When are tech companies going to learn that when trying to argue away the possibility that they violated users’ privacy, don’t point to other companies that are doing the same thing and say, “Well they’re doing it, too, so what’s the problem?” For one, what other companies are doing may be wrong or cyberstalky and so aligning yourself with those companies might not be in the best public relations move. Second, even if what other companies are doing isn’t exactly wrong, do you really want to liken yourself to the lowest common denominator?
Third, it’s just a childish response, Seriously, who are your handlers, Facebook? Do you guys not read this stuff before you send it out?
That’s not necessarily what we’re working on. SMS can be used for carrier billing (where users opt to pay for things like apps through their phone bill). Again – that’s not to say we’re launching this. It’s just an example of why an app might use these permissions. The Sunday Times leap to the conclusion that is was a messaging feature.
So Facebook wanted to study the messaging data of app users but the data is not going towards the launch of a messaging app from Facebook and, while the company could see where such information could be used toward launching such a messaging service, Facebook is confidently denying that they’re not working on a messaging app. Everybody clear on that?
Anyway – we have yet to make any such features available to the public. (so the Sunday Times is completely wrong when it says Facebook is reading people’s SMS. Wrong on the terminology, and wrong on the suggestion that it has been implemented).
Uh, what? Facebook says that the Times is completely wrong about the company reading people’s SMS, but then the second sentence of this same statement says “the Facebook app permissions include SMS read/write.” So does that mean while Facebook gave itself permission to read users’ texts, they didn’t actually take the opportunity to read those text messages? Facebook has unfettered and legal access to read all of the texts from Android users of the Facebook app, yet they didn’t read the the texts? We’re supposed to believe that?
But Facebook is right to insert this into the Android app permissions – because yes, the app technically has the capability to integrate with the phone’s SMS system – even if that is just for our own testing.
Even if it was for your own testing, Facebook, this still means you were reading the texts. Even if it meant you were only printing out the texts and printing them on rolls of customized toilet paper, it still means you were reading the texts that people had stored on their SIM card.
In a separate statement from their offices in the United Kingdom, Facebook reiterated their dismissal of the Times’ report.
“The Sunday Times has done some creative conspiracy theorising. The suggestion that we’re secretly reading people texts is ridiculous. Instead, the permission is clearly disclosed on the app page in the Android marketplace and is in anticipation of new features that enable users to integrate Facebook features with their reading and sending of texts.”
Now it sounds like Facebook is admitting that they’re reading people’s text messages, just not secretly – something that was understood all along.
Well, whatever excuse-juggling Facebook wants to offer up, two points remain salient in this frivolous exercise: One, Facebook has acquired access to Android app users’ text messages; two, Facebook can’t make up its mind as to why it wanted access to these texts nor whether or not they actually read them. For you Android users out there, how does this news make you feel? Were you aware the you’d agreed to allow Facebook access your SMS messages stored on the phone? Feel free to join the discussion below in the comments section.