The social media giant will start encrypting messages on both services by default in a significant privacy move affecting nearly everyone who uses Facebook and Instagram. Starting this week, the company will begin automatically shifting all chats on Messenger and Facebook to end-to-end encryption for their messages, which means that the conversations will be viewable only by their participants and not the platform itself. The move will also include calls on both Messenger and Facebook. It will be rolled out to users over weeks. It will eventually cover all messages on both apps—including those in private IG Direct conversations, which remain unencrypted.
The move comes after several groups, including Amnesty International and Access Now, wrote a letter to the company asking that it bolster the security of these chats. Encryption can protect users from hackers, fraudsters, and criminals, the companies say, adding that it also helps shield children who are being sexually exploited or otherwise abused online. It’s an issue that has become a significant point of contention between governments and corporations, with UK Home Secretary Priti Patel warning in September that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram shouldn’t implement encryption on the apps without incorporating safeguards to help prevent child exploitation.
Meta’s parent company, WhatsApp, already incorporates encrypted chats, and it argues that the feature is critical in helping protect people in authoritarian regimes or war zones where government surveillance can take away their freedom of speech. It has been pushing to expand messaging encryption across its entire suite of apps, and it says that by 2023, it will make messaging end-to-end encrypted by default globally.
But the WSJ reported that the company will still be able to read some types of messages, including those with links to websites and videos—though it won’t be able to access images or audio. It can also use its information about users, such as how many people are using a particular app or service, for advertising purposes.
One exception to the encryption rule will be for business accounts, which will continue to be unencrypted to allow the company to respond to customer questions and problems quickly. The company says it will continue to use that data to improve its services, though it hasn’t specified what kind of business account data it will have access to.
In a statement, Meta cited technical challenges in explaining the delay, saying it would require significant work to build new features compatible with encrypted chats and redesign how users manage their chat history. The company will also remove “vanish mode,” a feature on Messenger in which viewed messages will disappear from the screen after a set amount of time. The move to encrypt all messages will also exclude Messenger’s group messaging features, but the disappearing DMs feature on Instagram is expected to remain available.