A few weeks ago, the world went crazy when reports surfaced that Facebook Messenger was snooping on you. Reporters, hackers, and users alleged that, because Messenger had the permission to use your camera, monitor your location, or (on Android) read your text messages, that it was doing so all the time.
The scare was eventually debunked. The consensus: just because an app has the ability to do something doesn’t mean it’s doing it 24/7. You can find these same permissions, from the camera access, to the location-tracking, to the text-message reading in many social networking and texting apps, partly because Android and iOS don’t allow much control when it comes to asking users for their permission to do things. All developers can ask is "Do you want tracking on or off?" with no shades of gray in between.
"We never used that permission to collect location data in background, even though the device let you do that."
No more. With iOS 8, Apple now provides three options for location-tracking permissions: "Always," "Never," and "While using the app." Facebook tells The Verge that in iOS 8, Messenger and Instagram will default to only using your location while you’re using the app. This means these apps physically cannot monitor your location while they aren’t open. In other words, if anyone were to ever claim that Messenger was tracking your location 24/7, as many reporters did a few weeks ago, you could simply point them to the Settings app. Had Apple or Google allowed this kind of granularity a few months ago, Facebook's Messenger debacle might have never happened. Android doesn’t yet offer this kind of setting.
"We never used that permission to collect location data in background, even though the device let you do that," says Yul Kwon, the Privacy Program Manager at Facebook. "Even though we don’t use all the permissions, it’s hard to explain that to people, so we’re in favor of granular settings." One thing Facebook might have trouble explaining to users is why its main Facebook app defaults to "Always" as of today's iOS 8 update. The only reason the app needs to do so is so users can enable Nearby Friends, a new location-based feature, if they so choose. If location tracking weren’t switched to Always, Nearby Friends wouldn’t work — an example of how permissions should still yet become even more granular.
Apple has set a great example with iOS 8’s location-tracking permissions, but there’s still much more work to do. To assuage our fears even further, perhaps camera access should also have a setting for "Only while using the app." Otherwise, how can we be sure that Facebook isn’t taking photos of us while we’re on the toilet? That claim might sound ridiculous, but as Android Central's Phil Nickinson points out, these same kinds of privacy and permissions dramas seem to erupt again and again and again. With more specific settings and language from Apple and Google, however, we could potentially cut down on misinformation. These settings aren't designed to stop hackers — the kind that stole images from celebrities — but they could help put to rest some sticky privacy concerns that have been around for years.
There’s a fine, fine balance between usability and customization. Add too many options, and users can’t figure out your operating system. Add too few, and users complain that their apps have too much power. It's up to Apple and Google to find a happy medium, or else its developers will continue taking the fall for permissions and privacy uproars.