Facebook Reading Android Users’ Texts? Well, Hold On

The Internet lit up yesterday with news that Facebook had “snuck” a new permission into its application for Android that would allow the program to read users’ text messages.

Reddit discussion of the application request surfaced an Android forum post from December highlighting the change, so it appears that the update and requisite permissions change is being executed in a rolling fashion. Indeed, the poster of the screenshot that ignited Reddit itself stated as much after hearing feedback from other users.

So, Facebook might not have asked for permission to read your text messages yet, but it likely will soon if you are an Android user.

What the hell, you might be thinking. Well, Facebook has anticipated the hair rising on the back of your neck with a simple explanation of why it would want to read your text messages. From its website:

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What’s basically happening here is that Facebook is asking for access to your texts to make its two-factor authentication more friendly. Instead of making you dig through your text messages to find a code, it will poll through and automatically grab the string for you.

That’s a very small reason to ask for what feels like a very big access point to your personal information.

We can frame this simply: Would you mind if Facebook targeted advertisements against your text message content? That is to say would you be unhappy if your text messages became another data set that Facebook can use to help advertisers better target ads. You might not mind. Facebook already lets advertisers use selectors such as education level and age to target you, so why not one more?

The Gmail analogy you might have in mind isn’t an exact comparison. Content sent via Gmail is, for better or for worse, now part of Google’s data stores. Google then, with some restrictions, automatically scans your messages and delivers advertising against your mail content, monetizing its email service. Microsoft likes to make noise that this is too much, though it also scans your email, albeit for anti-virus purposes and not to better commercialize its Outlook.com product.

Why is the Facebook-SMS situation different? Because your text messages are very much not part of the Facebook universe. So, Facebook wanting access to your text messages is the company taking more into its tent.

This is not to say that Facebook does, will, or even wants to target ads based on your text message content. It could simply want the ability to better confirm the legitimacy of new handsets. But if you give a mouse a chocolate chip, it’ll usually want the whole cookie.

If you were fine with Facebook and its handling of your data before, I suspect that you still are. If, however, you were already on the fence, this could be a reason to climb down.