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Facebook is testing out a feature within its Messenger app to ensure that — as it becomes an indispensable way to communicate — people are able to do so securely and safely. The social networking company announced that it is using the Signal Protocol developed by Open Whisper Systems to provide “secret” chat areas in which to discuss sensitive topics. What’s more, these messages will be encrypted end-to-end to allow only you and the recipient to read them on a single device.
More than 900 million users are on Facebook Messenger monthly, not only for interpersonal communications, but also to engage with businesses and bots. As the social network evolves its messaging capabilities to be more useful to brands, some discussions aren’t exactly things you’d want to air in public should a hack take place. What if you’re chatting with a healthcare professional or a bank about your records through Facebook Messenger? Knowing that the conversation will remain safe from prying eyes can be comforting.
There are more than 11,000 chatbots on Facebook Messenger, each one potentially collecting information from you for a variety of reasons. Whether it’s to book a trip, place an order for flowers, or check your bank account, having a secure way to communicate will be useful for many people.
And let’s not discount the fact that this gives some peace of mind to those who want extra protection from the prying eyes of government agencies.
Enabling secret conversations within Messenger is optional. Facebook explained that some people prefer to use the app across multiple devices, but when you have secret conversations, you’re limited to just one device. This option is only available for text conversations, so GIFs, videos, payment transactions, or “other popular Messenger features” are not currently supported.
The company emphasized that it’s currently just testing out this feature but added that the security feature is likely to be made more available later this summer. In a blog post, Facebook said “We are putting a lot of thought into the design and implementation of this feature, and we are grateful to the security and privacy experts who have given us their valuable input.” A major player in the development of this feature is Open Whisper Systems, a security-related technologies provider of private messaging and calling.
What Facebook is doing with Facebook Messenger is similar to what it did with WhatsApp in April, except in today’s case the feature is not enabled by default. It’s worth noting that Open Whisper Systems also provides the end-to-end message encryption for WhatsApp. Now two of the most widely used messaging apps provide means for secure conversations, essentially taking the competitive edge away from others in the space, such as Telegram and Viber. Encryption will be baked into Google’s new Allo messaging app but won’t be turned on by default.
Word that Facebook Messenger supports encryption surfaced in May when screenshots appeared online showing “disappearing messages” within the iOS app. There were even reports as early as November 2015 of the company testing this feature out with some users in France.
Although Facebook is testing out encrypting messages and offering secret conversations, the company said it has always implemented “strong security systems.” Facebook Messenger “uses secure communications channels (just like banking and shopping websites) as well as Facebook’s powerful tools to help block spam and malware,” the company shared in a post. The features announced today are just another step Facebook is taking to make you feel better using its app.
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