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The Drawbacks of Facebook Consolidating Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp Chats

The effort by Facebook to integrate its major chat platforms may create minefields for users who rely on end-to-end encryption.

IN AN EFFORT led by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook intends to redesign WhatsApp, Instagram direct messages, and Facebook Messenger so that messages can travel across platforms. The move was first reported by the New York Times on Friday, and Zuckerberg wants the initiative to “incorporate end-to-end encryption.” Bringing those infrastructures together would be a massive task in and of itself, but designing the scheme to universally preserve end-to-end encryption in a way that users understand presents a whole new set of critical challenges.

As of now, WhatsApp chats are end-to-end encrypted by default, whereas Facebook Messenger offers the feature only if you enable “Secret Conversations.” Instagram currently does not provide end-to-end encryption for its chats. WhatsApp’s decision to make default encryption available to all users was a watershed moment in 2016, bringing security to a billion people with the flip of a switch.

Facebook is still in the early stages of homogenizing its messaging platforms, a move that could vastly increase the ease and number of secure online chats. However, cryptographers and privacy advocates have already pointed out several obvious roadblocks that the company must overcome. End-to-end encrypted chat protocols ensure that data is only decrypted and understandable on the sender’s and recipient’s devices. That is, at least, the plan. In practice, it can be difficult to use the protection effectively if it is enabled for some chats but not others and can turn on and off within a chat at various times. As the ecosystem becomes more porous, Facebook will need to find a way to help users easily understand and control end-to-end encryption as it attempts to unify its chat services.

“The big problem I see is that only WhatsApp has default end-to-end encryption,” says Matthew Green, a Johns Hopkins cryptographer. “So, what happens if the goal is to allow cross-app traffic but it is not required to be encrypted? There are numerous possible outcomes here.”

WhatsApp users, for example, can assume that all of their chats are end-to-end encrypted, but what happens if an Instagram user messages a WhatsApp user on Facebook’s newly homogenized platform? It’s unclear what kind of defaults Facebook will impose or how it will notify users if their chats are encrypted.

Facebook can also collect more data from unencrypted chats and incorporate monetizable features such as bots into them. Because of end-to-end encryption, the company has had a notoriously difficult time generating revenue from WhatsApp’s 1.5 billion users.

“We want to build the best messaging experiences we can, and people want messaging to be fast, simple, reliable, and private,” said a Facebook spokesperson on Friday. “We’re working to make more of our messaging products end-to-end encrypted, and we’re thinking about ways to make it easier to communicate with friends and family across networks. As you might expect, there is a great deal of discussion and debate as we begin the lengthy process of figuring out all the details of how this will work.”

Facebook emphasizes that this gradual approach will allow it to iron out any kinks before launching a unified chat structure. However, encryption is not the only source of concern. Privacy advocates are concerned about the possibility of creating a unified identity for people across all three services so that messages are delivered to the correct location. A setup like this could be useful in many ways, but it could also have complicated ramifications.

WhatsApp began sharing user phone numbers and other analytics with Facebook in 2016, breaking down a previously unbroken barrier between the two services. WhatsApp still allows users to create accounts using only their phone number, whereas Facebook requires your legal name under its contentious “real name” policy. This rule is maintained by the company to prevent confusion and fraud, but its rigidity has caused issues for users who have other safety and security reasons for avoiding their legal or given name, such as being transgender.

“What happens if the goal is to allow cross-app traffic but it is not required to be encrypted?” – JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY’S MATTHEW GREEN

On Thursday evening, Zuckerberg wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, “There’s no doubt that we collect some information for ads—but that information is also generally important for security and operating our services.” An indelible identity across Facebook’s brands could provide security benefits such as stronger anti-fraud safeguards. However, it may open up an even richer and more nuanced user data trove for Facebook to mine, as well as make it more difficult to use one or more of the services without tying those profiles to a central identity.

“The most obvious issue with identity is usernames. On Facebook, I’m one thing, and on Instagram, I’m another “Jim Fenton, an identity privacy and security consultant, agrees. “In some ways, having the three linked more closely together would be beneficial because it would make their connection more obvious. However, some Instagram and WhatsApp users refuse to use Facebook. This could be interpreted as an attempt to draw more people in.”

Such a change in how chat works across the three brands appears to have sparked deep controversy within Facebook itself and may have contributed to the departure of WhatsApp cofounders Jan Koum and Brian Acton last year.

End-to-end encryption is also difficult to get right because any oversight or bug can derail the entire scheme. Both WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, for example, currently use the open-source Signal protocol (as used in the Signal encrypted messaging app), but the implementations differ because one service has encryption enabled by default and the other does not. Combining these different approaches could lead to errors.

“There’s a world where Facebook Messenger and Instagram get upgraded to WhatsApp’s default encryption, but that’s probably not going to happen,” Johns Hopkins’ Green says. “It’s too technically difficult and would deny Facebook access to a large amount of data.”

And, while end-to-end encryption cannot solve every privacy issue for everyone all of the time, it is more difficult to know how to use it safely when a service does not offer it consistently and creates potential privacy issues by centralizing identities.

“I think they’ll figure it out,” Fenton says. “In my opinion, the bigger issue is user confusion.”

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The article above was written by the BestTopReviewsOnline team, which includes many of the US’s most knowledgeable technical experts. Our team includes well-known writers with extensive experience in mobile phones, computing, technology, photography, and other fields.

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