Facebook has long been criticized for not using end-to-end encryption as a default option for its messaging service, but that may soon change.
This week, Facebook announced that it has begun testing default end-to-end encryption among some users of its Messenger app. The company plans to roll out the messaging and calling feature worldwide next year.
Thanks to end-to-end encryption, Facebook and its parent company Meta cannot see its users’ private conversations – only senders and recipients can. This is an important security feature that protects users from cybercriminals and hackers, as well as law enforcement agencies that may require social media platforms to provide private chat history as part of an investigation.
Facebook’s announcement comes with backlash from privacy advocates after the company turned over private messages between a mother and daughter to a Nebraska police department in an abortion-related case. Facebook said its security update was unrelated to the Nebraska case.
WhatsApp is so far the only Meta-owned service that uses end-to-end encryption by default.
Last year, Meta began testing the option of end-to-end encryption of messages and calls on Instagram. In February, it expanded the test to include adults in Ukraine and Russia. Meta said it wants to expand the test to include people from more countries and different age groups.
Facebook already offers users end-to-end encryption for so-called “secret chats” that need to be enabled. It’s unclear what percentage of Facebook’s 3 billion users actually encrypt their chats.
Making end-to-end encryption a default option would be a significant step, especially given concerns after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade that posts and private messages could be used to prosecute women seeking reproductive health care.
While digital privacy advocates support Meta’s security update, they said the move should have come sooner because the issue of end-to-end encryption has been debated for years.
“The demand is simple: every messaging service should be end-to-end encrypted by default as soon as possible. Anything less is dangerous,” he said Evan Greer, director of digital rights nonprofit Fight for the Future.
Facebook security update
In addition to default end-to-end encryption, Facebook is also testing a new secure storage feature to back up users’ messages in case they lose their mobile phone or computer and decide to restore their message history on another device.
Thanks to end-to-end encryption, Facebook will not have access to these messages unless the user is reported for violating Facebook’s policies.
To access these backups, users must either create a PIN or generate a code known only to them. Another option is to use a cloud service such as iCloud to store a secret key that allows users to access backups. This last method is secure but not protected by Messenger’s end-to-end encryption, Facebook said.
Over the next few weeks, the company will roll out more tests and updates to its end-to-end encrypted chats. For example, deleted messages will be synced across devices, and users will be able to unsend messages or replies to Facebook stories.
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