Convenience vs. privacy: How apps like Facebook Messenger spy on users

Investigators

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Have you ever wondered if your phone is spying on you? Well, if you use some apps like Facebook Messenger, you are being spied on, in a way. Security experts say you have to expect that.

Facebook Messenger has over a billion users.

“I like that it’s easy to use,” said Haley Ellis. “I get message notifications right away and you can pay though it now.” 

Messenger offers services to make life easier, but it’s a free app. And because it’s free, there is a dark side to it.

“They can figure out what you’re talking about,” said security expert Rob Downs, the CEO of Managed IT Solutions.

When using Facebook Messenger device-to-device, Downs said messages are encrypted between the two parties. There’s another party looking in — Facebook.

“Once it gets into their system, it’s not encrypted anymore,” he said. “They can look at it, they can read it and parse through it.”

That results in situations like the following:

Downs said you’ll be messaging someone about a certain thing, and suddenly there’s an ad popping up on your browser for that same thing and you can’t figure out why because you’ve never searched for it.

“Your data is being parsed,” he said. That’s how a specific ad got to your device.

Facebook actually tells you that it will do that in both Messenger and WhatsApp in the terms of conditions. When you check “OK” to those terms and conditions, you’re accepting the spying.

“You are the product,” Downs said. “Your information is data that is sellable on a market.”

He said before using a free app like Messenger, you have to weigh convenience versus privacy versus security. 

Gabe Steinman used to use Messenger, but gave it up several years ago.

“I find it easier to call people or text them,” he said.

If you want to communicate using an app, you can use something like Telegram or Signal, which don’t spy.

“Those apps will not ask for all that information,” Downs said. “They are completely privacy focused and security focused.” 

A good rule of thumb when you are using the internet for anything is to assume all your information is public or can be accessed by someone. 

That means it’s up to you to take as many security precautions as you can. 

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