A Facebook software engineer speaking at the Real World Crypto Conference announced that Facebook “will definitely ship end-to-end encryption in Messenger”. However, he also admitted that “it will take several years”.
More Secure Communication
The Real World Crypto Symposium in New York aims to strengthen the dialogue between cryptography researchers and developers implementing cryptography in real-world systems. Facebook’s software engineer for Messenger, Jon Millican was one of the presenters.
End-to-end encryption would give the one billion users of Facebook Messenger significantly more secure communication. In principal, it prevents potential eavesdroppers. Only the true sender and recipient can read the messages as the data is encrypted from end to end.
The technology has, however, come under attack from law enforcement organizations. This is because it also prevents them from accessing the plain text of suspect communications in real time.
Opt-in Encryption Already Possible
Facebook Messenger already has the option of end-to-end encryption. However, this is set up as an opt-in feature. Users must indicate that they want more privacy, after which a Secret Conversation can be started. This gives users a greater level of privacy when having sensitive conversations.
Encrypted messages cannot be described as normal chat conversations. The user has to enable the feature on a conversation by conversation basis.
While Secret Conversation was, at the time of its launch, certainly a step in the right direction, it falls well short of what Mark Zuckerberg promised about a year ago. As part of the battle to become more privacy-friendly after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, he had promised default end-to-end encryption as is available with WhatsApp, Signal, Wickr, Viber and Apple iMessage.
End-to-End Encryption Years Away
According to Jon Millican, users should not expect standard end-to-end encryption with Facebook Messenger in the coming years. He confirmed Facebook is working on it, but did not mention a timeline.
“We announced the plan years before we could deliver it”, he said in an interview with Wired at the fair. “While we have made progress, it turns out that adding end-to-end encryption to an existing system is incredibly challenging and involves fundamentally rethinking almost everything,”
Planned Integration is just as Far-Off
While Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram are and will remain standalone apps, Mark Zuckerberg had wanted to integrate them all into one mega platform by 2020. This would allow users to send messages between different platforms for the first time.
However the hurdles Facebook is now facing with default end-to-end encryption, most likely means that the planned integration will take at least as long to deliver as end-to-end encryption. Otherwise, it would undermine the existing default end-to-end encryption that already exists in apps like WhatsApp.
To listen to Facebook’s full presentation, keep an eye on the Real World Crypto YouTube Channel. The video should be posted there soon.