Meta has announced it is introducing end-to-end encryption (E2EE) for one-to-one chats on its Messenger platform by the end of this year. The company also announced its upgrading of millions of chats on Messenger to stronger encryption standards. Meta’s campaign to strengthen the security of chats on Messenger was originally announced in 2019 but was delayed in November 2021 amid concerns that adopting E2EE would end up obscuring evidence of illegal content from law enforcement agencies.
The messenger app started testing E2EE in August of last year, offering a feature that allowed customers to back up their encrypted chats and test automatic encryption chat threads.
In a blog post released yesterday, the company outlined its journey towards implementing automatic E2EE for one-on-one messages on Messenger, explaining that the platform’s old architecture had to be shed and replaced so that customers could manage their chat history through protections like PINs. “We think about this in a similar way to how airplane designers think about aerodynamics,” wrote Timothy Buck, Messenger’s product manager. “Streamlining the complexity of our messaging service creates a better outcome, particularly for people who have low connectivity. As we’ve developed E2EE, we have had to rebuild over 100 features in this client-centric way.”
Though Meta has announced its intention to enable end-to-end encryption on Messager for at least four years, pressure on the social media giant to complete the transition sooner rather than later has mounted in recent months. In October, an open letter signed by activist groups Fight for the Future, Access Now and Amnesty International called on the platform to act on its rhetoric and impose E2EE standards on all messages flowing through its platforms with immediate effect. “In an increasingly dangerous world, there’s one simple thing every messaging platform must do right now: make our messages safe using end-to-end encryption,” wrote its authors.
Rob Sherman, VP, deputy chief privacy officer at Meta, responded with an open letter of his own at the beginning of this month. “Meta,” he said, “is committed to providing the ability for people to communicate privately with their friends and loved ones where they have confidence that no one else can see into their conversations.
Meta, encryption and the Online Safety Bill
The lack of E2EE facilities on Messenger has also come into focus in recent months as a result of the UK government’s attempts to pass the Online Safety Bill, legislation that would compel messaging platforms to allow law enforcement agencies greater access to messages sent in transit. While charities like the NSPCC have made the case that such measures will help to deny terrorists and sex offenders safe harbour for their illegal activities on encrypted messaging networks, critics have argued that the bill, if passed in its current form, would degrade online freedoms in the UK and significantly complicate existing content moderation efforts at messaging platforms.
Arguments made by the former camp arguably derailed previous attempts by Meta to impose E2EE on its platforms in the UK. In 2019, the social media giant’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, announced the firm’s intention to implement E2EE across Instagram and Messenger, but these plans were halted in 2021 when child abuse charities and the UK government forcefully argued that the announcement was “simply not acceptable” and would lead to a rise in illegal activity taking place on these platforms. In response, then-head of safety at Meta Antigone Davis announced that the rollout of E2EE on Messenger would be delayed until 2023. “As a company that connects billions of people around the world and has built industry-leading technology,” said Davis, “we’re determined to protect people’s private communications and keep people safe online.”