Do you know the main difference between Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, the two Meta Group communication apps? The answer is important: it is end-to-end encryption. Roughly speaking, this security layer makes it possible to encrypt the content of messages as they pass from sender to receiver, that is, it turns the texts into a set of unintelligible characters. Only the two participants in the conversation – in each “end” – have the key to encrypt and decrypt the content.
With this protection, anyone intercepting the communication – on the network or on the servers of the company managing the application – could not read it (at least in theory). In other words, WhatsApp users’ conversations (but also other apps like Signal) are much better protected than Messenger’s. Therefore, in a blog post published on August 11, Facebook announced that it was launching tests to introduce end-to-end encryption as standard on Messenger. This measure would have avoided the scandal that broke out earlier this week, linked to the terrible story of a police investigation into clandestine abortion in the United States. A scandal that revived the hashtag #DeleteFacebook (let’s delete Facebook).
A Messenger conversation at the center of a court decision
On Tuesday, the US press reported Facebook’s cooperation with the police in Nebraska on an abortion case, while the country has been under tension on this issue since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Subject to a search warrant issued by the courts in June, the social network transmitted the data it had on a 17-year-old girl, Celeste, and her mother. Joining the party, Messenger conversations between the two.
Celeste was accused of performing an abortion (by medical means) outside the hospital at the end of her 28th week (6th month) of pregnancy. She would thus have defied several laws in Nebraska that prohibit abortion beyond the 20th week except in cases of serious or mortal danger to the pregnant woman, and would have faced several years in prison, like her mother. These laws existed before the repeal of Roe v. Wade, but the case has caused attention because it suggests the role social media could have in the controversial crackdown on abortion.
And for good reason: It was from elements of the discussion between Celeste and her mother on Messenger that the judge authorized a search of the two accused’s homes, which led to the seizure of 13 smartphones and computers and the extraction of 24 gigabytes of data. The two women used the Facebook app to discuss whether to buy the necessary medication for the abortion and then what they planned to do to hide the body of the aborted fetus.
On its website, Facebook clearly explains that it can cooperate with law enforcement in legal proceedings, as required by US law. This observation is also valid in France, although the company states so “urequest under a mutual legal assistance treaty or a judicial request may be necessary before any disclosure of the contents of an account“. But in the context of the abortion case, the women involved were probably unaware of this possibility and of the danger they were exposing themselves to. This is where end-to-end encryption could have protected, since the content of conversations requested by the courts would have been unreadable.
Generalized end-to-end encryption, an expected measure
Facebook already offers end-to-end encryption to Messenger users, but it’s just a manually enabled option that remains largely unknown. In other words, implementing end-to-end encryption by default will affect more than one billion Messenger users worldwide and will especially protect the least informed among them about cybersecurity issues. In its latest press release, Facebook announced for the first time a date for this implementation, admittedly vague: 2023.
While this measure has been awaited by privacy advocates for years, it doesn’t just have allies in the political world. On the EU side, for example, voices are regularly raised to ask encrypted messaging applications such as WhatsApp and Signal to build “back doors” that would allow authorities to bypass encryption and access messages in the clear. . These opponents of encryption justify their demands with the needs of the fight against criminals.
But these claims have never been forced into the debate so far. And in any case, the builders of the applications, Signal in the lead, have repeatedly declared their opposition to such a project. They point out that such backdoors could also be used by totalitarian governments or exploited by cybercriminals.