Facebook is planning to introduce optional end-to-end encryption for its popular Messenger app, according to a new report from The Guardian.
The change would mean that if the user decides to switch encryption on for a message thread, the messages would be encoded in a way that makes them indecipherable to anyone who isn’t either the sender or the messages’ intended recipient — including Facebook itself and law enforcement.
It’s reportedly due to launch in “the coming months.”
Facebook hasn’t officially confirmed its encryption plans, with The Guardian’s report based off three anonymous sources “close to the project.” The social network did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.
But the move would not be totally surprising, given the tech industry’s increasing focus on security amid a broad debate over consumer use of encryption and the challenges it presents.
Apple was one of the earlier big tech companies to bring strong encryption to consumers. Its iMessage messaging service is end-to-end encrypted, meaning the company can’t “scan your communications, and [it] wouldn’t be able to comply with a wiretap order even if [it] wanted to.” (And Apple devices running iOS 8 and onwards also have full-disk encryption, preventing Apple or anyone else from accessing the data saved on a device without the correct passcode.)
At the start of April 2016, WhatsApp — the wildly popular messaging app owned by Facebook — turned on end-to-end encryption for its more than one billion users. “Building secure products actually makes for a safer world, (though) many people in law enforcement may not agree with that,” cofounder Brian Acton told Wired at the time of the announcement.
Even Google is now at it. The Californian search and mobile announced a new chat app called Allo at its I/O conference in May. Allo also comes with end-to-end encryption, but users have to choose to switch it on for specific chats, as using it means the sophisticated AI that differentiates the app can no longer work.
In short: By not having encryption, Facebook Messenger is behind the times.
Like Google’s Allo, Facebook Messenger’s encryption will be opt-in. Facebook is increasingly emphasising the utility of automated bots in Messenger — but if end-to-end encryption were enabled for all conversations, these bots wouldn’t be able to function.
So adding encryption as an optional extra placates users who are looking for additional security, and helps Messenger keep up with its competitors, while not hampering intended functionality for the majority.
But the move — once official — may draw the ire of some in law enforcement, who have grown exasperated and angry over the consumer technology industry’s widespread adoption of encryption. When Apple first introduced default-on full-disk encryption, it was accused of being “the phone of choice for the pedophile,” with law enforcement worrying that the encryption will make it harder to gather vital evidence from once-unlocked smartphones.
But the tech companies and privacy advocates counter that strong encryption is vital to safeguard users’ privacy, and to protect their data from hackers.