It's been quiet on this front for a little bit, but today, Facebook has announced the next step in its shift towards the full integration of its messaging services, with the addition of end-to-end encryption for voice and video calls in Messenger, as well as the launch of new experiments to expand its encryption options to Instagram Direct.
First off, on Messenger's new encryption options - as you can see in these screenshots, Messenger's new encrypted mode for video chats will include a label at the top of the screen denoting that the discussion is end-to-end encrypted.
Encrypted audio chats will include a similar identifier, providing more privacy options for your Messenger interactions.
As explained by Facebook:
"Since 2016, we’ve offered the option to secure your one-on-one text chats with end-to-end encryption. In the past year, we’ve seen a surge in the use of audio and video calling with more than 150 million video calls a day on Messenger. Now we’re introducing calling to this chat mode so you can secure your audio and video calls with this same technology, if you choose."
Indeed, Messenger users have long been able to encrypt their text chats for extra privacy, but they'll now be able to lock up their video and audio discussion as well, while Facebook's also adding some new settings for disappearing messages, also with a focus on privacy.
"People don’t always want or need their messages to stick around and the timer controls let someone decide when their messages expire in the chat. We’ve updated this setting to provide more options for people in the chat to choose the amount of time before all new messages disappear, from as few as 5 seconds to as long as 24 hours."
The features will add an extra level of assurance for Messenger users, with encryption protecting their chats and ensuring that their discussions remain private.
In addition, Facebook also says that it's testing end-to-end encryption for group chats, while it'll also soon look to expand its encryption options to Instagram as well:
"We’ll kick off a limited test with adults in certain countries that lets them opt-in to end-to-end encrypted messages and calls for one-on-one conversations on Instagram. Similar to how Messenger works today, you need to have an existing chat or be following each other to start an end-to-end encrypted DM. As always, you can block someone you don’t want to talk to or report something to us if it doesn’t seem right.
Which is good, from a certain perspective, in that it will provide extra security around your private discussions and sharing. But various regulatory groups have already raised significant concerns about Facebook's encryption expansion plans, and this latest advance will no doubt re-ignite the debate around whether Facebook should even be allowed to implement such all-encompassing security features.
Back in 2019, after Facebook first announced its full messaging encryption plan, representatives from the US, UK and Australia co-signed an open letter to Facebook which called on the company to abandon the project, arguing that it would:
"...put our citizens and societies at risk by severely eroding capacity to detect and respond to illegal content and activity, such as child sexual exploitation and abuse, terrorism, and foreign adversaries’ attempts to undermine democratic values and institutions, preventing the prosecution of offenders and safeguarding of victims."
The Governments of each region called for Facebook to provide, at the least, 'backdoor access' for official investigations, which Facebook has repeatedly refused.
The debate over the proposal has raged on ever since, with the UK’s digital minister warning that he has “very grave concerns” about Facebook's plan, while the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has argued that move sees the tech giant prioritizing the privacy of adults over their duty of care to children.
“Private messaging is at the front line of child sexual abuse, but the current debate around end-to-end encryption risks leaving children unprotected where there is most harm."
This is the most compelling and important argument against the move at present. By providing full encryption across all of its messaging apps, Facebook would better facilitate illegal activity by predators, and those who would then seek to use such systems for child exploitation, which could also lead to an expansion of such activity across the platform's massive network.
Of course, WhatsApp messages are already end-to-end encrypted by default, and Messenger, as noted, already offers a level of encryption. So you could equally argue that such capacity already exists - but then again, the expansion of these options to all messaging platforms, as part of Facebook's broader plan to integrate all of its messaging tools into a single platform, would greatly boost this capacity, which underlines the stated concerns.
The argument then comes down to your personal feelings on the matter. Is Facebook looking to implement full encryption to better protect user information, or is it looking to boost its own business potential, with a focus on making people more comfortable in transferring private data, like financial and health information, boosting messaging utility?
Another argument is that full encryption will enable Facebook to escape a level of scrutiny around what's being shared in its apps - if it has no way of knowing what users are sharing with each other via messages, it can't be held responsible for such either.
Again, it comes down to your perspective - will encryption provide protection for criminals, or should Facebook be looking to provide more data privacy, in line with rising industry shifts?
Either way, Facebook is pushing ahead with its messaging integration plan, which, by necessity, will include encryption elements. Back in April, Facebook reiterated its plans to implement full encryption within all of its messaging tools, with the project set to be completed "sometime in 2022, at the earliest."
This new announcement is the next step. And while it will provide an extra layer of security, it will no doubt also realign Facebook's collision course with regulators and Government bodies over the potential negatives of the same.