En plein scandale, Facebook annonce qu’il va améliorer la confidentialité des conversations sur Messenger

En plein scandale, Facebook annonce qu'il va améliorer la confidentialité des conversations sur Messenger

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. Broadly speaking, this security layer allows the content of messages to be encrypted when they pass from the sender to the recipient, that is, it transforms the texts into a set of incomprehensible characters. Only the two participants in the conversation, at each “end”, have the key to encrypt and decrypt the content.

With this protection, anyone who intercepts the communication – on the network or on the servers of the company that manages the application – would not be able to read it (at least, in theory). In other words, the conversations of WhatsApp users (but also of other apps like Signal) are much better protected than those of Messenger. That’s why, in a blog post published on August 11, Facebook announced that it was launching tests to introduce end-to-end encryption by default in Messenger. This measure would have prevented 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 judicial decision

On Tuesday, the US press reported Facebook’s collaboration with Nebraska police in an abortion case, as the country has been under tension over this issue since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Subject to a search warrant issued by the courts in June, the social network passed on the data it had on a 17-year-old girl, Celeste, and her mother. With in the lot, the Messenger talks between the two.

Celeste was accused of having performed 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 Nebraska laws, which prohibit abortion beyond the 20th week except in cases of serious or fatal danger to the pregnant woman, and she would risk spending several years in prison, just like her mother. . These laws existed before the repeal of Roe v. Wade, but the case has caused a stir because it hints at the role that social media could play in the controversial repression of abortion.

And for good reason: it was from elements of the discussion between Celeste and her mother on Messenger that the justice authorized the search of the houses of the two defendants, 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 buying the medication needed for the abortion and then what they planned to do to hide the body of the aborted fetus.

On its site, 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, specifying the company anyway that “yourrequest under a mutual legal assistance treaty or a letter rogatory may be required prior to any communication of the contents of an accountBut in the context of the abortion case, the women involved were probably unaware of this possibility and the danger they were exposing themselves to. This is where end-to-end encryption could have protected, as the content of the conversations requested by the courts would have been illegible.

Pervasive end-to-end encryption, an expected measure

Facebook already offers end-to-end encryption for Messenger users, but it’s just a manually enabled option that remains largely unknown. In other words, implementing end-to-end encryption by default would affect Messenger’s more than one billion users worldwide, and would especially protect those less informed about cybersecurity issues. In its latest press release, Facebook first announced an admittedly vague date for this rollout: 2023.

While this move has been awaited by privacy advocates for years, it doesn’t just have allies in the political world. On the European Union side, for example, voices are regularly raised calling on encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal to build “back doors” that would allow authorities to bypass encryption and access messages seamlessly. These opponents of encryption justify their demands by the needs of fighting criminals.

But these claims are never forced into debate so far. And in any case, the builders of the applications, Signal in the lead, have repeatedly declared their opposition to any project of this type. They point out that such backdoors could also be used by totalitarian governments or exploited by cybercriminals.