Facebook Messenger’s “Secret Conversations” are Crucial for Privacy
Facebook recently announced that it is testing out a new encryption feature for Messenger, with a wider rollout expected later this summer. Facebook Messenger has been rolling out the feature over the past few days, mirroring a similar rollout of an encryption feature for WhatsApp — Facebook’s other messaging service.
Facebook claims that calls and messages on Messenger already utilize secure communications channels, but additional safeguards would make it easier to execute one-to-one secret conversations. The new feature allows users to communicate without anyone eavesdropping on the conversation. Ideally, this means that even Facebook will not be able to listen any conversations. WhatsApp users must familiar with the secure messaging feature; conversations on the messaging app were recently separated with an official message informing users that their messages will be protected with end-to-end encryption from now on.
The Messenger app will also include a timer option within a secret conversation. With this option, users can control the length of time that a particular Facebook message can remain visible. This technology is somewhat reminiscent of Snapchat’s ephemeral messaging service, but Facebook revealed that it uses the Signal Protocol by Open Whisper Systems.
Facebook’s rollout is important for the privacy of its users and for the company itself. The tech industry has recently been rocked by a number of security concerns, with prominent industry executives such as Mark Zuckerberg falling prey to hackers. Increasing concerns regarding the privacy of conversations called for a need for encryption.
Facebook has also ensured that hackers cannot get their hands on conversations in case they get access to an account as secret conversations on Messenger can only be read on any one device. The new feature ensures that secret conversations are restricted to the device they were carried out from. The service, however, is optional as many users toggle between messaging on Facebook’s website and the Messenger app on a phone or tablet.
Facebook, however, had to sacrifice add-on services to make conversations secret. Videos and GIFS cannot be sent on secret conversations, which makes sense given that Facebook supports GIFs through external parties such as GIPHY. Messenger’s payments feature does not work in secret conversations either. This might spell bad news for those who want to carry out shady transactions in an encrypted Messenger conversation, but this is necessary given that third-party websites store users’ credentials.
By not including third-party interactions, Facebook has cut off one avenue for hackers to exploit should they try to gain access to encrypted conversations. The company still aims to listen to customer feedback regarding the issue, which would ensure that Messenger’s encryption at least matches the kind offered by rival messaging apps.
Apps such as Signal, Telegram, and Silent Phone had an edge over Messenger because of their encrypted messaging service. The new encryption feature, however, ensures that Messenger takes one of the best qualities of its rivals, and incorporates it into its main app. This will truly make Messenger an app for everyone, and add to the app’s other features such as the ability to find Facebook contacts’ cell phone numbers.
One drawback of the new feature is that it is not for groups. Facebook is only testing out one-to-one encrypted messaging, which is perhaps more secure as secret conversation is restricted between two participants only. That said, entire groups of people might prefer meeting in person to discuss matters of critical importance. Interestingly enough, Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service provides end-to-end encryption for groups as well. This might pit the two apps against each other; however, given that Messenger has around a billion users, end-to-end encryption even for a conversation for two could really be a useful addition.
Graphics by Danish Raza