With 1 billion users from WhatsApp and 900 million users from Messenger, Facebook is about to dominate the end-to-end encryption messaging wars. The social network giant launched a beta feature called “secret conversations” in Facebook Messenger for a small group of users for testing back in July, and now, it looks like the final version is starting to roll out to a growing number of users.
While the National Security Agency leaks from 2013 by Edward Snowden may have turned the spotlight to privacy, it was really the court battle, or lack thereof, between Apple and the FBI that jump-started the encryption war. The showdown began with the 2015 San Bernardino shootings, where the shooter left behind a locked iPhone.
Apple initially aided the FBI, but the bureau secured a court order requiring the Cupertino company create a tool to weaken the iPhone’ encrypted framework. Apple rejected the court order, but the FBI dropped both that case and another related one, when it managed to break into the subject iPhones thanks to a technique it purchased from professional hackers.
That jump-started a wave of messaging apps to enable end-to-end encryption app-wide — Wire, WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, and Viber turned on the secure messaging function for all users. The feature makes your messages more secure, meaning that law enforcement, criminals, and even the company itself cannot intercept your messages. It’s worth mentioning that other messaging apps have been deploying end-to-end encryption for a while, including Apple’s iMessage, Telegram, Threema, Signal, and more.
At its developer conference in May, Google announced plans to release a new messaging app called Allo this summer, which would feature an Incognito Mode that uses end-to-end encryption. The mode is a compromise — a way to have end-to-end encryption, while still being able to use features like the artificially intelligent Google Assistant, a Google representative told Digital Trends.
Days later, rumors erupted that Facebook may introduce a similar feature in Messenger — and it’s finally happening. Secret Conversation’s encryption protocol, Signal, comes from Open Whisper Systems, the non-profit that powers end-to-end encryption in WhatsApp, Allo, and Signal, its own messaging app.
“We are starting to test the ability to create one-to-one secret conversations in Messenger that will be end-to-end encrypted and which can only be read on one device of the person you’re communicating with,” according to a blog post on Facebook’s newsroom.
To trigger a secret conversation, tap on the person’s name you’re chatting with at the top of the app. You’ll be taken to the thread’s profile, where you can tweak other settings like the color of the thread, add nicknames, and more — these are features that were introduced a while back. You’ll find Secret Conversations somewhere in there, and once you tap it you’ll enter the end-to-end encrypted thread with the same person. For more secure messages, you can set a timer for when the message should disappear.
“Secret Conversations can only be read on one device and we recognize that experience may not be right for everyone,” reads the blog post. “It’s also important to note that in secret conversations we don’t currently support rich content like GIFs and videos, making payments, or other popular Messenger features.”
The social network giant has released a white paper on Messenger’s end-to-end encrypted features, which provides a technical overview of how secret conversations work. You can check it out here.
Updated on 09-21-2016 by Lulu Chang: Added news of general Secret Conversation rollout.