- Facebook Messenger is one of the most popular messaging apps, with 1.2 billion users.
- That huge audience makes it extremely useful — your friends and family probably use it — but it also means that Messenger doesn’t need to fight for your trust.
- It’s time to change that.
There’s no shortage of ways to text your friends and family for free. You can choose from WhatsApp, Skype, Google Hangouts, Signal, Telegram, Apple’s iMessage, or literally scores of other options.
But the messaging app you’re probably using is the worst choice.
Facebook Messenger is a juggernaut, with more than 1.2 billion users. Chances are your family and friends have it installed on their phones. That makes it incredibly useful — after all, the value of any messaging app is directly tied to how many of your contacts also use it.
And that’s exactly the problem with Messenger. The app takes its massive user base for granted. As revelations over the past weeks and months have made clear, Facebook has its own set of rules for your Messenger inbox. Whether or not you like those rules is irrelevant.
For Messenger, users are essentially a captive audience rather than customers that it feels the need to satisfy and fight for.
Messenger needs to earn your trust
In many ways, your private messages sent through Facebook are property of Facebook. Menlo Park can scan the photos and links you send, hand them over to the cops, and even delete some messages from inside your inbox without your permission.
Naturally, while it’s scanning your messages, Messenger is also collecting loads of data on you, including your call and text history from outside of Messenger. It stopped doing this in March after it was widely publicized. Facebook’s on-the-record defense? You gave it permission.
It’s time to take that permission away.
Given there are so many other messenger services, there simply is no reason to continue to use Messenger. Delete it from your phone, turn it off, and choose a different free app that’s not going to violate your trust.
To hear Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg talk about scanning people’s messages, you’d get the impression that he’s running some kind of terrorism police that’s making the world better — starting with a sectarian conflict in Myanmar.
“I remember, one Saturday morning, I got a phone call and we detected that people were trying to spread sensational messages through — it was Facebook Messenger in this case — to each side of the conflict, basically telling the Muslims, ‘Hey, there’s about to be an uprising of the Buddhists, so make sure that you are armed and go to this place.’ And then the same thing on the other side,” Zuckerberg said in an interview with Vox this week.
“Now, in that case, our systems detect that that’s going on. We stop those messages from going through,” he continued. (Myanmar NGOs say that Facebook didn’t detect the messages, and that the warning Zuckerberg received was actually from civil society groups.)
While preventing ethnic violence across the world may be a valid reason to scan Messenger emails, a more recent news story underscores that Facebook executives and officials have increased “god mode” access to their services, and use that power to do shady things that normal users have no idea about.
Several people who have chatted with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg say that when they checked their conversations later, all of Zuckerberg’s messages had been deleted, according to TechCrunch.
So when these people looked at their conversations with Facebook, only their messages remained. It looked like they were talking to themselves.
This isn’t a feature in Messenger — it’s exclusively available to Facebook executives and officials — but after it was caught Facebook said it was in “full compliance with our legal obligations” and said it would add an unsend feature for everyone at some point.
It’s a breach of trust in the social network. So, two items:
- Facebook executives have special powers, including (but not limited to) deleting messages that its powerful executives previously sent.
- Facebook has the ability to scan or read the content of your messages if it likes.
Given the way the company has been acting, is it really a fair actor that you want handling your messages, in which you discuss romantic relationships, or legal troubles, or your family, or your business?
Not a backdoor — there is no door at all
It’s not exactly appropriate to say that Messenger has a “backdoor” with which it can read your messages. The truth is, there is no door at all.
Messenger sends and receives unencrypted messages. That means on Facebook servers, they’re stored in text you or I could read. That makes it significantly easier for Facebook to scan them.
In fact, Facebook even has a mode if you don’t want it to read your messages — it’s called “secret conversation.” Facebook scans your messages by default. You have to specifically turn on encryption to tell it to not scan your messages.
Not encrypting its messages by default is a conscious decision by Facebook. WhatsApp, which Facebook owns, has encrypted its messages. Apple has too, with iMessage. Apple even says it doesn’t want have the content of your communications at all.
But Facebook clearly does — otherwise, “secret conversation” would be the default conversation.
Message encryption used to be a challenging technical problem, and it’s still not easy. But groups like the Signal Foundation have created open source software that would allow anyone building a messenger app to avoid starting from scratch.
Not all messaging apps are encrypted. Usually, the company running the service you’re using can look at the messages and legally must provide them to the cops when presented with the appropriate legal documents. Neither Twitter nor Snapchat are encrypted, either. Google looks at your email to serve ads. But only Facebook’s CEO has recently bragged about the “systems” he uses to scan them.
This would be easier if Facebook Messenger didn’t have one thing making it a great product: Your friends and family. “I really want to stop using FB Messenger, but a lot of my family members use it,” one colleague lamented on Friday.
But nearly everything else in the FB Messenger product makes it a difficult app to love. For example, it won’t let you turn read receipts off, unlike iMessage and basically every other messaging services.
This product decision, which people complained was “creepy and invasive” as long as five years ago can be dangerous for some people. Imagine if a former partner was stalking you. You might want to read what he’s sending you, but you don’t want him to know you read it. That’s not an option on Facebook.
That’s just one product decision that’s been made to maximize use and growth on Messenger, rather than the experience. Another example: Sometimes the app sends notifications when one of your Facebook friends installs it. That’s not for your benefit — sure, you may want to talk to the guy, but probably not — but it does help keep Messenger’s daily active user count up.
Why I hate notifications:
Me: (driving down the freeway)
Phone: HEY!! PAY ATTENTION!!! I HAVE SOMETHING REALLY IMPORTANT TO TELL YOU!!!!
Me: Umm, I’m trying to focus on driving. What is it?
— Brenton (@appsforartists) April 1, 2018
This company-wide prioritization of growth over experience was revealed in a stunning 2016 post written by one of Zuckerberg’s inner circle, Facebook VP Andrew Bosworth.
In it, he says that any decisions that Facebook may make in order to continue growing is “de facto good.”
“That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China some day,” he wrote. Basically — by taking your contact book, he knows he’s locking you into Messenger.
Facebook’s leaders aren’t stupid. They know what they’re doing when they use what are called “dark patterns” to get you to upload your friends information, or get you to reply to messages immediately, for example.
How Instagram tricks you into syncing ALL of your contacts when picking a username is the most sinister interface trick I’ve ever seen pic.twitter.com/BQqgYHNOs5
— ⚡️ Owen (@ow) April 6, 2018
On a social network, that’s perhaps justifiable. But on a private messaging service to communicate with other people, it shows that what you want is not the same thing that Zuckerberg wants.
What to switch to
The point of this column is not to get you to switch to another specific messenger. There are lots of good options. WhatsApp is an obvious choice, and it’s encrypted — although it’s owned by Facebook, and even one of its cofounders now says to delete Facebook.
Signal is the preferred messenger for the security-focused, iMessage is fast and reliable but limited to pricey Apple devices. There are lots of considerations — the Electronic Frontier Foundation has a good roundup of them here.
Your friends and family may have other preferences, too. But what’s important is that you shouldn’t use Facebook Messenger just because it’s the easiest. If your contacts are worth messaging, it’s worth it to talk to them on a service you can trust.
If you have information about Facebook Messenger to share, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. He uses the secure messaging services mentioned in this story, too.