Why Experts Are Worried About Encryption on Facebook Messenger

A possible honeypot for bad actors

Key Takeaways

  • Facebook has delayed its plans to release end-to-end encryption on the Messenger app.
  • Despite the privacy benefits that end-to-end encryption brings, some experts believe it could open the door for abusers and other bad actors to gain access to children and young online users.
  • Facbook does have a kids' version of Messenger that could remain unencrypted while the adult version is encrypted.
Someone using Facebook on their laptop computer and another app on their smartphone.

Audtin Distel / Unsplash

Facebook is jumping on the privacy bandwagon and working to add end-to-end encryption to its Messenger app, but experts say that encryption could put children and younger users at risk.

In May, Facebook announced plans to bring end-to-end encryption to its Messenger app by 2022. While many praise the use of this encryption method in online messaging services, some recently have expressed concerns that adding it to Facebook Messenger could open the door for abusers to contact younger users without any form of moderation.

Others say encryption is worth the risk, and some suggest Facebook could offer a back door instance that could be used to monitor specific messaging threads.

"As a data privacy and cybersecurity professional, I should say that getting end-to-end encryptions on Facebook messenger isn't bad at all. These encryptions help billions of users ensure that their messages are only accessible by their receivers. It restricts potential peeking from any other sources and offers more secure and private data handling," Chris Worrel, chief privacy officer of Privacy Bee, explained in an email.

However, he says concerns about children facing "online abuse, grooming, and exploitation is indeed incomparable with the assumed security and data privacy benefits of the encryptions."

Open Opportunity

There’s no doubt that end-to-end encryption can play a pivotal part in helping to keep your data private and safe from prying eyes. However, in a world where many things can be planned online and within a chat room, there will always be concerns about what kind of bad actors could be working in the shadows. This is where encryption starts to look like a bad thing.

"If we want things to be secure, we need something to be encrypted, and if we want things to be open, they need to be open."

Sure, it offers protection and safety from data-hungry tech giants like Facebook, Google, and, of course, cybercriminals. However, it also means that anything said within an encrypted messaging service cannot be obtained by authorities to create trails that lead to online abusers and other bad actors. 

Concerns around encryption being used by terrorists and other criminals have been a point of contention for some time now, including in 2019 when WhatsApp was used to plan a terrorist attack on London Bridge. And, because Messenger has such a broad reach—an estimated 1.3 billion users were registered and using Messenger in 2018—and is used as a vital part of Facebook, itself, it makes sense for people to be worried. 

Creating Exploitations

While the concerns about online abuse that could come from encrypting Messenger are valid, other experts in the technology field are worried about the current halfway cycle that online privacy appears to be stuck within.

Two young kids using smartphones.

McKaela Taylor / Unsplash

"I think when it comes to privacy we can’t have it both ways," Brandon Keath, a cybersecurity expert working with Harrisburg University, said in an email. "If we want things to be secure, we need something to be encrypted, and if we want things to be open, they need to be open. We are in a strange halfway world right now, and it is causing issues on both fronts."

Keath warns that by focusing too much on the concerns that some are raising, we’re going to end up creating systems that ultimately undermine what companies are trying to accomplish. Instead of offering secure messaging or online services, users will end up with something that promises security but doesn’t really deliver on it.

"I understand the concerns of online abuse. However, creating backdoors in systems has always led to disaster every time it has attempted to be implemented," he explained.

It is also important to note that Facebook offers two types of Messenger, the regular app and a Messenger Kids application. Because of this, the company could create an encrypted system that works with the main messaging app while leaving the kids’ version open to content moderation.

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