Seven years after Meta (known as Facebook at the time) began working on it, end-to-end encryption is finally being made default across the company’s messaging platforms.
Loredana Crisan, the Head of Messenger, announced in a blog post that all chats and calls on Facebook and Messenger will now be end-to-end encrypted by default.
The feature is also being rolled out to Instagram chat, thus securing two major communication platforms. However, Meta’s journey to implement default end-to-end encryption was fraught with challenges, including pressure from law enforcement authorities.
It was in 2016 that Facebook (now Meta) started to work on deploying end-to-end encryption across its several communication apps. In the same year, the company finished rolling out end-to-end encryption as a default feature on WhatsApp. However, the rest of the company’s suite of communication apps had to wait.
Encrypted messaging had already been introduced in Messenger in 2016, but only on an opt-in basis.
In 2019, CEO Mark Zuckerberg laid out a plan to bolster privacy protection on WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram in the face of growing scrutiny of Facebook’s data practices. Zuckerberg promised that the company would launch default end-to-end encryption features on all its messaging apps.
Instagram started to test opt-in end-to-end message encryption in 2021. Despite the tech giant doubling down on privacy and security technologies in 2019, the path was a long and slow one.
As Meta finally announced the rollout of end-to-end encryption as a default feature on Wednesday, the company shed some light on the difficulties it faced along the way.
For Messenger to default to end-to-end encrypted messaging, the platform had to be reworked at a massive scale. Calling it the biggest upgrade Messenger has received since its launch in 2011, Loredana Crisan highlighted that the app’s features had to be rebuilt from the ground up.
Jon Millican, a software engineer from the privacy team that worked on Messenger, pointed out that the change was about more than just migrating the users’ data.
We’re having to fundamentally change a bunch of the assumptions that they work with when they’re using the product.Jon Millican
Besides the technical challenges, Meta also encountered opposition over the implementation of the security feature. Victim advocacy groups and law enforcement authorities claimed that end-to-end encryption would hinder crucial police investigations by restricting necessary oversight.
However, the company remained set on its goal to ensure privacy protection on its communication platforms and has delivered on its promise despite the challenges.
Concerns Over End-To-End Encryption
Despite the growing importance and demand for privacy protection features on messaging apps, Meta’s move to introduce encrypted messaging by default on Messenger and Instagram has become a topic of debate.
On one hand, it’s crucial to the safety of minorities, journalists, human rights workers, and political dissidents. By rendering messages unintelligible except for the sender and recipient’s devices, the feature helps protect such groups from authoritarian governments.
On the other hand, law enforcement authorities have historically opposed Meta’s growing focus on privacy protection technologies. In 2019, the tech giant clashed directly with the Department of Justice (DoJ) when William Barr, the Attorney General at the time, called on Meta to delay the efforts.
Encrypted messaging can help “dangerous criminals to cloak their communications and activities behind an essentially impenetrable digital shield,” Barr later argued during a speech in July this year.
Law enforcement agencies insist that tech companies should only allow authorized officials to use encrypted messaging. However, according to security experts, criminals would always find a way to use a technology released exclusively for certain authorized users.
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