The Internet is on fire with outrage right now about the security warnings in the Facebook Messenger app. The furor is based on the viral spread of a post on the Huffington Post back in December of last year. The issue has come to the fore because Facebook is taking the messaging capability out of the main Facebook app, so users will have to install the Messenger app if they want to continue to use the capability.
The particular problem is with the warnings presented to users when they install the app on Android. Many articles are describing this as the “terms of service” but the warning are the standard text displayed by Android based on the specific permissions the app is requesting.
Here are the warnings as listed in that original the Huffington Post article:
- 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 with microphone. This permission allows the app to record audio at any time without your confirmation.
- Allows the app to take pictures and videos with the camera. This permission allows the app to use 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 permission 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.
This strikes me as more an inditement of the over broad requests for permissions by apps in Android than any particular evil intent on Facebook’s part. Obviously many of these things would be very bad indeed, if Facebook actually did them. After significant searching I have not seen any suggestion at all that Facebook is or is likely to do any of these things without your knowledge.
Many articles are ranting about the possibility that Facebook might turn on your camera or microphone without warning and capture embarrassing sounds or images. Doing so would be disastrous for Facebook, so it seems very unlikely.
After reviewing the actual Facebook privacy policies and terms of service in the Messenger app, I don’t see any sign that these actions would be permitted but of course Facebook does have the right to change the policies, basically at will.
Don’t take from this that I am a Facebook apologist. Anyone looking back through this blog will see many cases where I have criticized them and their actions (here, here, here, here for example). There are major problems with the amount of data Facebook collects, how they collect it from almost everywhere on the Internet (not just their website or apps), and their privacy policies. I have turned off location tracking for the Messenger app on my iPhone because I don’t want Facebook tracking that.
However….. Facebook is not going to start turning on your camera at night to take naked pictures of you! There is a lot about privacy on the Internet to worry about, lets stay focused on the real stuff rather than these fantasies.
Welcome to the June edition of the Privacy Blog Podcast, brought to you by Anonymizer. In June’s episode, I’ll discuss the true nature of the recently leaked surveillance programs that has dominated the news this month. We’ll go through a quick tutorial about decoding government “speak” regarding these programs and how you can protect yourself online.
Later in the episode, I’ll talk about Facebook’s accidental creation and compromise of shadow profiles along with Apple’s terrible personal hotspot security and what you can do to improve it.
Thanks for listening!
In the March episode of The Privacy Blog Podcast, I’ll run down some of the major privacy news events of the last month. Learn how Facebook “Likes” can paint an extremely detailed and eerie picture of your real-life character traits. I’ll provide my take on Google’s Street View Wi-Fi sniffing controversy along with how “Do Not Track” flags are affecting the everyday Internet user. We’ll then touch on the implementation of the “Six Strikes” copyright alert system that was recently adopted by all five major ISP providers. Stay tuned until the end of the episode to hear about Anonymizer’s exciting new beta program for Android and iOS devices. Thanks for listening!
Forbs recently noticed that Facebook suddenly and basically without warning made @facebook.com your default visible email address on your timeline.
I had no idea that such an email address even existed! I certainly don't check it explicitly. Emails to that address end up in your standard Facebook messages queue, which for me is mostly a black hole.
LifeHacker has a nice article on how to change the settings back to how you might want them.
You may not want some spammer to get that address and start filling up your Facebook messages queue.
Courthouse News Service reports that a virginia judge has ruled Facebook "Likes" are not protected speech.
The case was related to employees of the Hampton VA sheriff's office who "Liked" the current sheriff's opponent in the last election. After he was re-elected, he fired many of the people who had supported his opponent.
The judge ruled that posts on Facebook would have been protected, but not simple Likes.
Randi Zuckerberg, marketing director and co-founder of Facebook said:
I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away… People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. … I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.
<irony> This of course explains why no one is a jerk or a bully on Facebook. </irony>
I have been doing this Anonymity thing for much longer than Facebook has existed. I have seen the debates and watched the reality. I am convinced that the problem is that most Internet spaces are impersonal, rather than that they are anonymous. People will be outrageously rude and offensive online while being unfailingly courteous in person, even if both situations are in real name.
In reality, most "real world" interactions are functionally anonymous, yet most of us behave most of the time.
I won't even get in to how terrible her idea would be for people under repressive regimes.
Face book announced that it will soon start automatically suggesting your name for tagging photos any time it thinks it recognizes you in a picture. This automatic facial recognition is the default and will be done unless you explicitly opt out.
It looks like you need to customize your privacy settings to disable this. In Facebook, look under the "account" menu and select "Privacy Settings".
From there click the "Customize settings" link at the bottom of the table. Within there, look for "Suggest photos of me to friends", and set it to "Disabled".
I suspect that few people will simply stumble on that.
Other people tagging you in photos can lead to embarrassment you might want to avoid. Having your name suggested just makes that more likely.
While you are at it, you might want to change the setting that allows others to "check you in" to locations. That can tell thieves you are away from home or stalkers where to find you.
CNN has a good article on the announcement. Facebook lets users opt out of facial recognition - CNN.com
This article takes an interesting look at the issues with Facebook's true name policy and the impact it has on activists and dissidents in repressive countries. It quite rightly talks about the fact that for most of the history of the Internet use of "screen names" was the default.
The odd thing about this debate is that there is basically no authentication of the names used. Many people assume that since most users are under true name that all of them are. It is trivial to set up a new account with a plausible name which can not be traced back to the real user.
I would hope that dissidents, activists and others at risk would take advantage of this simple capability to protect themselves. Yes, this is in violation of the terms of service, but I think it is for a much greater good.
If you choose to do this, take care with who you friend under this alias. If the social network you create matches your real one, or that of another account, it may be very easy to unmask your identity.
A reader of this blog recently emailed me to ask:
What s/w do you recommend to keep anonymous while using Gmail, IE, Outlook, and Facebook on a laptop?
This is actually a very tricky question because the nature of all of these tools, except Internet Explorer (IE), is to be associated with a visible and discoverable account and identity in the "cloud". I will discuss IE last and separately.
Gmail ties to your gmail and other Google accounts. Outlook ties to some existing email account at some email provider. Facebook is tied to your Facebook account and is explicitly designed for making your information public.
The profound question here is, what do we even mean by being anonymous using these services? I would argue that the best one can manage is to be pseudonymous; that is to maintain a persistent and visible pseudonym / alias which, while discoverable, is not associated with your true identity.
Fortunately Gmail and Facebook are free and typically do not require any real credentials to set up an account, and many of the free email providers work similarly. Using Anonymizer Universal (AU), and a browser with no history or cache to set up the accounts would ensure they were not connected to your real identity. It is important that the accounts never be accessed in any way except through AU, or they will be forever after associated with your real IP address. Furthermore, it is critical that the browser used is never used for any activity connected to your real identity, or the cookies and other digital detritus in your browser may allow these sites (or other folks) to tie the pseudonym to your other real name accounts.
IE is in many ways the easiest because there is no underlying account, but all the same rules apply. You need to ensure that you isolate your anonymous or pseudonymous activity from your real name activity.
For all of this activity a virtual machine can be a very effective tool. For example, if you use a Mac you can use a virtual machine running Windows or Linux for all of your alias activities and use the normal operating system for your real name activities. Similar tools exist for other operating systems.