Soon your Facebook Messenger chats be end-to-end encrypted — if you choose to enable the feature. You will also have a way to set a timer for individual messages to disappear after you send them, the company announced Friday.
The new feature, dubbed "secret conversations," will offer the 900 million people on Messenger the type of strong encryption that allows only the intended recipients to read a message. Not even Facebook can read the correspondence.
"We’ve heard from you that there are times when you want additional safeguards," Facebook wrote in a blog post. "To enable you to do this we are starting to test the ability to create one-to-one secret conversations in Messenger that will be end-to-end encrypted and which can only be read on one device of the person you’re communicating with."
But similar to other messaging products that technologists and privacy experts have criticized, Facebook's secret conversations will not be turned on by default. You would have to activate it manually to gain the additional privacy protections.
"The fact that it is not on by default means that Messenger can't and shouldn't be treated as a secure platform," Nate Cardozo, a senior attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told BuzzFeed News.
Not only does mixing a secure messenger with an insecure one introduce the possibility of human error, he said, but the opt-in design all but guarantees that the vast majority of messages will be sent without the feature turned on. Across technologies, people most often rely on built-in settings. "It's too easy to mess up," Cardozo said.
Facebook's encryption rollout follows Google's unveiling of Allo, its new messaging app introduced earlier this year. Allo also offers end-to-end encryption, but like Facebook's secret conversations, you have to first turn it on. Apple's iMessage and WhatsApp, a company that Facebook owns, provide strong encryption by default, a move they say offers customers an extra layer of security.
"What we have now is a significant gap between the way Apple and WhatsApp have done it, and the way that Facebook and Google are doing it," Christopher Soghoian, the ACLU’s principal technologist, told BuzzFeed News.
"It's really unfortunate. WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are owned by the same company. They have shown that it's possible to do things the right way. And then they've chosen not to do it the right way with Messenger."
WhatsApp, Facebook's secret conversations, and Google's Allo all use encryption technology developed by Open Whisper Systems.
Alex Stamos, Facebook's chief security officer, said the call to make end-to-end encryption optional was made with users' experience in mind. Secret conversations doesn't support several popular features within Messenger, including message history, switching between devices, and sending video.
"Starting a secret conversation with someone is optional. That’s because many people want Messenger to work when you switch between devices, such as a tablet, desktop computer or phone," states the blog post.
Despite these engineering trade-offs, Soghoian said Facebook is placing too much value on the wrong things. "Given the choice of making privacy opt-in or Facebook's other features opt-in, privacy has taken a back seat to GIFs and other additional features," he said.
Soghoian believes a digital security divide is emerging, leaving less sophisticated consumers vulnerable to attacks. Referencing a recent picture of Mark Zuckerberg in which the Facebook CEO's laptop camera appeared to be covered with security tape, Soghoian said, "He and his security team know how to protect themselves. But most users don't. And the consequence of that is that most people are exposed."
As more tech giants are offering their customers easy ways to secure data with encryption tools, the impact on law enforcement has inspired a contentious policy debate in Washington and around the world.
FBI Director James Comey has argued in recent years that as strong encryption has become widely available, electronic evidence that was once within reach of investigators has now "gone dark," putting the public at risk. For Comey, end-to-end encryption can provide a sheltered space for criminals and terrorists, one where not even search warrants can penetrate.
While U.S. law enforcement officials have acknowledged that encryption is a vital data privacy tool for law-abiding citizens, and is more or less here to stay, they've also taken aim at companies for offering end-to-end encryption by default. In April, when WhatsApp rolled out strong encryption for all its customers, top FBI officials intensely criticized the decision. And throughout the spring, the FBI and the Justice Department tangled with Apple and its allies in Silicon Valley in a high-profile legal battle over gaining access to an encrypted iPhone.
According to Comey, limiting the availability of end-to-end encryption is one way to lessen the risks of "going dark." In December, he told lawmakers that “encryption is always going to be available to the sophisticated user.” But, he added, "the problem we face post-Snowden is it’s moved from being available to the sophisticated bad guy to being the default.”
While Facebook and Google have attributed their product designs to enhancing the user experience, their decisions to keep encrypted messaging off by default will likely please the FBI, Cardozo said. "I think that Comey would view this as a positive compromise. And I think we should view this announcement with skepticism."
For now, secret conversations will be available only for a limited number of test users. The feature will be fully available on Facebook Messenger later this summer.
Hamza Shaban is a technology policy reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Hamza Shaban at Hamza.Shaban@buzzfeed.com.
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