Today British paper The Sunday Times has written what appears at first glance to be a shocking discovery of abuses of privacy at Facebook. According to the article, Facebook "admitted to reading text messages" as part of a trial to launch its own messaging service. The story then goes on to conflate this alleged infraction with both anonymous and known "phone apps" that pilfer your data while you're not looking.
There's just one small problem: Facebook says the report is misleading at best. While the new Facebook app in the Android Market does utilize read / write functions for SMS, it's an as-yet unused permission for testing a new feature the company is working on. The app does not literally "read" your messages, and furthermore, the permissions to gain said access are clearly stated (and need to be agreed to) when you install the application. We reached out to Facebook, and here's what a spokesperson had to say:
The Sunday Times has done some creative conspiracy theorizing but the suggestion that we're secretly reading people's 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 texts. However, other than some very limited testing, we haven't launched anything so we're not using the permission. If we do, it will be obvious to users what's happening. We'll keep you posted on our progress.
Based on the rest of the Times article, it's clear that writers at the paper don't have an in-depth understanding of how permissions work for apps. Much of the article seems aimed at drumming up fear, uncertainty, and doubt with inane, factually vacant passages such as this:
One academic said many apps were simply a "front" for the mining of private information, and a smartphone entrepreneur confessed his sole purpose for releasing apps was to "load them with advertisements."
Based on our conversations with Facebook, it seems clear that the company is very aware of the potential privacy issues inherent in any social application on your phone. It's unfortunate the Sunday Times chose such a sloppy way to address a real problem.
Note: The Sunday Times source link is hidden behind a paywall.