February 27, 2012, 12:17 PM — Facebook is now denying it uses its free Android app to spy on text messages sent by Android users who are also Facebook subscribers.
Facebook had confirmed the snooping in a story that ran yesterday in the London Sunday Times (registration required).
The story – one of many highlighting how the broad access rights granted to many Android apps could make users' activity far more public than they think – was prompted by apps from Facebook, Yahoo, Flickr and Google, which install themselves with the right to access SMS messages and other supposedly private functions.
Some apps can even intercept and eavesdrop on phone calls, while others such as YouTube's are able to take over control of an Android phone's camera to broadcast video or take photos at any time, the Times story said.
The Times quoted Facebook sources as saying the company did not routinely monitor private text messages, but was running a limited project under which it did so as part of a trial before the launch of its own message service.
That is a gross misinterpretation of the Android permissions the Facebook app assumes, Facebook's intentions toward Android customers and of what Facebook told the Times, according to a refutation of the story posted by Facebook spokesperson Iain Mackenzie.
Sure we CAN read your texts; but we DON'T. Not yet.
Facebook's Android app does take permission to read and write SMS messages, but doesn't use those functions currently except for a very limited trail of new functions that use SMS to transport billing, confirmation and other messages to Facebook, not to intercept text messages to or from users, Mackenzie wrote.
Facebook may eventually use SMS functions more widely. If it does, Mackenzie wrote, it will notify end users that it is doing so, just as it notified them that the current version of the app has permission to access text messages, even though it doesn't.