Meta said on Wednesday that it planned to turn Messenger, its global chat and voice messaging app, into a fully encrypted service, a move that is set to rekindle a debate about privacy and security in communications.
The Silicon Valley company, which also owns Facebook and Instagram, said the change was part of an overhaul intended to make Messenger more similar to other messaging apps, such as Apple’s iMessage and Meta’s other messaging service, WhatsApp.
End-to-end encryption is a method of keeping texts, photos, videos and phone calls private so that third parties cannot get access to the content. The technology scrambles messages in such a way that only the sender and the intended recipient can decipher them.
“The extra layer of security provided by end-to-end encryption means that the content of your messages and calls with friends and family are protected from the moment they leave your device to the moment they reach the receiver’s device,” Loredana Crisan, a vice president of Messenger, said in a post. “This means that nobody, including Meta, can see what’s sent or said, unless you choose to report a message to us.”
Law enforcement authorities and technologists have argued over encryption controls for decades. On one side, privacy advocates and tech executives believe people should be able to have online communications free of snooping. On the other side, law enforcement and other authorities believe tough encryption makes it impossible to track child predators, terrorists and other criminals.
Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s chief executive, has long positioned himself as a privacy champion. In 2019, he announced a plan to stitch together and encrypt all of his company’s messaging apps, a move that has taken years of technical infrastructure work. At the time, he acknowledged the risk it presented for “truly terrible things like child exploitation.”
Meta’s messaging services have recently been under particularly intense scrutiny in Europe, where the company has been fined billions of euros for violating data privacy laws. Lawmakers have also criticized Meta for not allowing its messaging services to easily work with other services like iMessage and Telegram, and has ordered the company to make it possible to send a message from Meta’s apps to competing apps.
Meta has recently reduced the number of its trust and safety employees who work on issues such as reducing misinformation and catching child predators, purveyors of exploitative material, or drug and arms traffickers.
End-to-end encryption gained more traction in 2013 after data leaked by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden appeared to show the extent to which the N.S.A. and other intelligence and law enforcement agencies were gaining access to users’ communications through companies like Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and Facebook without their knowledge.
Encrypted messaging apps like Signal rose in popularity, and tech giants such as Apple started wrapping user data in end-to-end encryption. In 2016, WhatsApp introduced full encryption to its service.
In the United States, regulators have said the broadening use of encryption in messaging apps has facilitated criminal behavior and child predation by keeping messages out of the reach of law enforcement.
In a statement in April, the Virtual Global Task Force, a group of 15 law enforcement agencies including Interpol and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said Meta’s decision to encrypt its messaging services “is an example of a purposeful design choice that degrades safety systems and weakens the ability to keep child users safe.”
Along with end-to-end encryption, Messenger plans other new features, including a notification that lets you know whether someone opened and read your message and the ability to send voice memos, make messages disappear after 24 hours and edit sent messages. Messenger users send more than 1.3 billion photos and videos a day on the app.