Facebook launches encryption option for Messenger

Facebook users can now opt in to end-to-end encryption on each message thread. 

Patrick Sison/AP/File
Facebook has unveiled an option to encrypt communication on its Messenger app. The privacy option is similar to that of WhatsApp, another messaging service owned by the social media network.

Facebook has rolled out its encrypted messaging technology to mobile users worldwide, allowing the 900 million people who access the platform’s Messenger app to communicate privately.

Dubbed “Secret Conversations,” the feature allows Facebook’s users to opt in to sending messages back and forth that no one, including the company, the government, or intelligence agencies, can read. It uses Signal Protocol for end-to-end encryption, which comes from Open Whisper System’s “Signal,” a messaging app used by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The announcement comes at a time when many are questioning the security of their online presence. From Facebook’s controversial history of mining data from its users to constant threats of identity theft and fraud, more citizens are becoming concerned with the ways in which both the government and private individuals or companies can access their data and communications.

As more messaging services move to create encrypted services, some privacy advocates say the question is not whether to encrypt, but whether to make it the default setting – which Facebook's Secret Conversations do not. 

“Our private lives as citizens are really being invaded constantly,” Jennifer Grygiel, a communications professor at Syracuse University, tells The Christian Science Monitor, calling privacy "paramount." Professor Grygiel said the feature, despite coming out after that of Facebook-owned WhatsApp, is a positive improvement in Facebook’s direct messaging system.

But the feature isn’t just about creating a private space for Americans to exercise their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. Given Facebook’s global reach, and its decision to enable Secret Conversations for all mobile users worldwide, users will have access to encrypted communication regardless of their nation's privacy laws.

Some countries may fight Facebook on that. WhatsApp faced a similar legal challenge over the summer, when a judge in Brazil suspended use of the messaging app country-wide, then arrested a Facebook executive over WhatsApp messages that authorities believed contained information relevant to a drug case. Because of the program's encryption, WhatsApp did not have access to the information, the company argued. The ban was lifted shortly afterwards. 

The launch of Secret Conversations could bring similar challenges. 

"Facebook has to be concerned about that every day, given its scale and the cross-border nature of such a large company," Grygiel says. "What you'll see are local challenges to this, especially in other countries that disagree with how the United States handles data."

Another feature that’s drawn criticism, this time from privacy advocates, is the requirement that users must select the encryption option when they want their messages to be made private, as it’s not automatically enabled in each messaging chain. 

While WhatsApp provides users with automatic and total encrypting, Facebook Messenger has rolled out a model that resembles that of Google's messaging service Allo, which also requires users to trigger an encryption option on each message they want to keep private.

This distinction may be an attempt on the part of Facebook to maintain access to its users' data. 

“Raw data is extremely valuable for building these kinds of artificial intelligence systems,” Christo Wilson, a computer science professor at Northeastern University, tells the Monitor. “Facebook may want to preserve that.”

The practice of optional encryption may deprive less tech-savvy users who don’t understand the benefits that come from enabling certain settings on the app, or raise a red flag on the actions of users who do enable the feature.

“You look different,” if you opt for encryption, Dr. Wilson warns. “Unfortunately, encryption was not baked into the Internet. It’s very easy to see that you’re encrypting stuff. You’re not behaving the same as everyone else.”

Encryption protects the message itself, but not its metadata, which can still be monitored, letting others see who is messaging whom, and how often.

While some may associate encrypted messages with illegal activity, others point out that the right to private communication is as old as the country itself, and simply taking new forms in today's hyper-connected world. Digital innovation has intersected with privacy rights in a myriad of ways, but those who take actions to protect their conversations shouldn’t be presumed guilty of some wrongdoing, advocates emphasize. 

“‘Secret’ makes it feel like it’s a dirty word,” Grygiel says. “It makes it feel like we’re doing something wrong. What we used to have prior to computers, technology, and social media, was this feeling of privacy as American citizens and human beings.”

Information from Reuters was used in this report.

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