Facebook to Offer Secure 'Secret Messaging'

John Lister's picture

Facebook is to let users send messages which cannot be read by anyone other than the recipient. It's also continuing to work on a feature that allows users to send temporary messages which self-destruct.

The new feature is referred to as end-to-end encryption. That means it's set up in a way that, even if the message is intercepted, it can't be read by anyone other than the recipient. This is done by maintaining the encryption from the sending device to the receiving device, regardless of the route it takes across the Internet. Secure Shell (SSH), which is commonly used to connect a client to another remote machine, and SSH File Transfer Protocol (SFTP), which is used to transfer files over a secure connection, also use similar technologies.

Facebook's proposed encryption will be an opt-in feature in Facebook Messenger, unlike with the separate WhatsApp service that Facebook also owns. The logic behind opt-in is that many users want to access their sent and received messages on multiple devices, which isn't possible with end-to-end encryption the way Facebook has implemented it.

Video Messages Exempt From Tool

Another restriction is that the feature will only work with plain text messages. It's not suitable for messages that include videos or animated GIF images. It will also not work with the Facebook Messenger tool for making payments to a friend.

The tool will be known and labeled as a "Secret Conversation," and is going into testing phase now. Facebook will then use feedback from testers in order to refine the tool before a full public launch later this summer. (Source: fb.com)

The move will likely lead to controversy, as one of the side effects is that Facebook would become physically incapable of complying with law enforcement agencies and courts that demand it hand over details of a message sent through its Secret Conversation tool. However, it may still be able to provide metadata, meaning information such as the details of when two people exchanged messages and where they were located.

This Message Will Self Destruct

Secret Conversation will also include an option Facebook has tested several times in the past, namely the ability to set messages to automatically delete. Users will be able to set a time limit on a message, after which it will be removed and no longer visible to either party in the conversation. (Source: theguardian.com)

It's a similar approach to the popular photo and video sharing app Snapchat, where messages automatically delete after 10 seconds. Facebook hasn't said whether it will try to replicate Snapchat's measures that try to block recipients from taking a screenshot of the image or video before it disappears, something that has worked with limited success.

What's Your Opinion?

Would you opt in to use Secret Conversations? If you send sensitive information through electronic messaging, would you be deterred from sending it through a site such as Facebook no matter what the supposed safeguards? Does the option of setting messages to self-destruct hold any interest for you?

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Dennis Faas's picture

I'm not sure how useful this feature would be if it's not something that would be used by default as in the case of Whatsapp. Also, secret messages from stalkers that automatically self destruct and that are otherwise virtually untraceable could become a serious problem.

hrleno's picture

Funny Facebook now coming out with this right after Israel is suing them over terrorists using their service to communicate with each other. Nice.