Facebook denies allegations of reading users' text messages

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(CBS) - An explosive report by The Sunday Times is alleging that Facebook can access user text messages from the Android version of the social networking app. The claims prompted a fierce response from Facebook.

Full coverage of Facebook at Tech Talk

The story by the Times claimed that the Android Facebook was accessing users' text messages "as part of a trial to launch its own messaging service."

While Facebook is being singled out, they are not alone. The Times article pointed out that nearly all app developers, from Apple to individual programmers, "gain access to the treasury of data when people agree to the terms and conditions of downloading an app."

So, what's the truth?

Facebook's European communications manager Iain Mackenzie fired off an angry note denying any development of a messaging app and called the report "disingenuous reporting."

Mackenzie claimed Facebook did tell the Times that the company was "running a limited test of mobile features which integrate the SMS functionality." However, "SMS read/write is not currently implemented for most users of the mobile app."

"A ludicrous attempt to cook-up a story about companies spying on users - spun out of our explanation that we delared[sic] the app permission to everyone even though we're only using it with selected people who know the score," Mackenzie said in the note.

But, if only a handful of people who "know the score" have this function activated, why does everyone who has the app need to agree to those terms?

Ultimately, there is no hard evidence that Facebook is reading people's text messages. Here are the permissions Android users grant to Facebook when they download the app.

EDIT SMS OR MMS
Allows application to write to SMS messages stored on your device or SIM card. Malicious applications may delete your messages.

RECEIVE SMS
Allows application to receive and process SMS messages. Malicious applications may monitor your messages or delete them without showing them to you.

READ SMS OR MMS
Allows application to read SMS messages stored on your device or SIM card. Malicious applications may read your confidential messages.

"On the Android App store, the Facebook app permissions include SMS read/write," a Facebook spokesperson told Business Insider. "The reason it is on there is because we have done some testing (not with the general public) of products that require the SMS part of the phone to talk to the Facebook App. That's what the read & write refers to - the line of communication needed to integrate the two things."

The issue of user privacy has been in the spotlight following controversies involving the biggest names in tech.

Apple was pressed for answers when allegations that app developers stored users' address books on their servers. App developer Path admitted they had been storing data, deleted the information and apologized for the breach in privacy. A spokesperson at Apple responded to the claims by saying the practice was in violation of their guidelines.

Obama's "Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights" tackles online privacy concerns

Google was also under fire for allegations that the search engine giant was tracking iPhone users' web browsing habits by exploiting a loophole in Apple's Safari web browser. Bypassing Safari's privacy settings would allow Google to track users' browsing habits by installing browser cookies. Facebook was accused of the similar practices, but with Internet Explorer.

Just last week the Obama administration announced a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, which pushes for more privacy protection of personal data.

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