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Facebook Messenger: forced app with sniffing function?

Facebook is increasingly forcing mobile users to exchange private messages in its separate app. A popular detour was closed: Up until now, users could use m.facebook.com to chat via browser - now, when tapping the message icon, the message appears stating that the conversations will be moved to Messenger. At the same time, the store is opened directly to install the app.

So you can still get past the messenger

There are two other alternative solutions, but these are much less convenient. And how long they will last is questionable in view of the change.


Two ways to chat without a messenger app

Under the adress https://mbasic.facebook.com takes you to the mobile Facebook page for classic cell phones. A blogger described this way. It doesn't look that nice, but it works like the app. After logging in, you will find the link "Messages" in the bar at the top.

The other alternative is to load the desktop version of Facebook in the browser app (this is usually done via a tick in the browser settings). Because on a desktop PC or on a laptop you can use the messages on the Facebook page as usual. However, this quickly becomes difficult on small screens.


One wonders why Facebook is so compulsive to bring its messenger to devices - Marc Zuckerberg's company has already bought WhatsApp, which is already the most widely used messenger (more than a billion users worldwide). The forced installation is sharply criticized in numerous reviews of the app in Google's Play Store.

The app requests these permissions

We are particularly critical of the range of far-reaching authorizations that the messenger obtains. On Android, the youth portal Checked4You puts together, the app currently wants access to:

  • Check phone status and identity, forward outgoing calls, call phone numbers directly (this may incur costs!)
  • Read, edit and send MMS and SMS (this may also incur costs!)
  • Access contacts to read and change them
  • Capture location
  • Access to memory, camera and microphone to take pictures, videos and audio
  • Access to the SD card contents in order to read, change or delete them
  • Get WiFi information
  • Full network access
  • Download files without notification
  • Perform pairing with Bluetooth devices
  • Show over other apps
  • Disable the phone from sleep and control the vibrator
    Change audio settings
  • Read and change sync settings

Facebook can use it to collect comprehensive information - and not just about its users, who agree to the whole thing when installing and setting permissions. The circle extends to non-users via the smartphone's address book and SMS.

Another trend is also becoming apparent: access to the device's microphone. This may be tempting for companies. However, we are extremely critical of the fact that there are more and more opportunities to record and evaluate this data in the private sector.

For apps that were developed for Android version 6.0 and higher, authorizations can be managed individually when they are used for the first time and also afterwards.

In the US, Facebook has been listening since 2014

In the USA, Facebook uses its messenger app to record noises and evaluate the data. The company admits that too. However, the function must be activated by the user in each case - for example to identify a piece of music. The crux of the matter: What happens to the data obtained?

The trend towards the microphone in networked devices

Google, Amazon and Apple bring the voice assistants "Home", "Echo" and "HomePod" into the home. Even a Barbie doll model has microphones and is connected to the manufacturer via WLAN. And when talking to partners, friends or colleagues - the smartphone is on the table and apps may have extensive authorizations.

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The discussion took off with a case by US professor Kelli Burns. The communication scientist drew a theoretical scenario in which conversations with others near the smartphone could be recorded and then suitable content could be played out in the future.

In relation to the British Independent, Facebook denies a link between audio data and selection of advertising.

In the help area, the company presents the function to its users as follows:

"Using your microphone and music apps, you can share TV shows and music you're listening to or watching in your posts."

That sounds harmless, but it remains a worrying development. In Germany, just listening and evaluating is a major data protection problem. "Facebook users not only make themselves market research subjects," says Julian Graf from the consumer advice center. There is a risk that the company will once again expand its target group to non-users through the microphone function.

This is how companies get data about third parties

The company has long been analyzing the contact data stored in the smartphone, and now it is potentially also recording conversations made by other people in the vicinity of the devices. "Non-users have never consented to Facebook," said Graf. "If people in this country were accepted by the smartphone app, that would be very critical in our view with a view to personal rights."

Whether it's the smartphone's contact book or, in the future, conversations around the device: "You should definitely be aware that third parties can also be affected by my settings."

Turn off the microphone

Even if you first ask for everything during installation: Depending on the version of the smartphone operating system, the individual authorizations for each app can be specifically controlled. At Android you will find the settings under the item "Applications" (on some devices it is also called "Application Manager", "Apps" or similar). At Apple's iOS there is "data protection" under "Settings", where the "microphone" can be set.

Current smartphones and versions of the operating systems also allow very specific settings. For example, you can only switch the microphone on briefly for Facebook Messenger if you need its function in the app. Our advice: generally set permissions for apps very cautiously.

The next level is already looming on the horizon. With his virtual Oculus Rift glasses, Julian Graf has already observed, Facebook can also be granted access to the user's biometric data - and can then record their body measurements, for example.