Special thanks to Christian Albano for his contributions to this post.
Earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg announced in a written note on Facebook’s website that the company would be shifting its platform’s focus toward a privacy-focused messaging and social networking service. As a part of this shift, Facebook is working to implement end-to-end encryption into its messaging platforms, which includes Facebook Messenger and Instagram Direct. Recently, however, law enforcement officials in the U.S. and U.K. governments have urged Facebook against putting end-to-end encryption into effect, arguing that it will interfere with their ability to investigate criminal activities.
End-to-end encryption prevents third parties from accessing messages sent between sender and recipient through online messaging services by storing the encryption key only on the participants’ devices. Under this system, even Facebook itself could not access the content of conversations that take place on its own messaging platforms because these conversations would not be stored on its servers.
Generally, when an encryption key is stored on a messaging service provider’s own servers, law enforcement officials can subpoena the provider to access the messages. However, with end-to-end encryption in place, companies like Facebook cannot provide law enforcement with access to the encrypted messages. This system is particularly challenging for both the U.S. and U.K., as these countries recently signed a data sharing agreement, the CLOUD Act Agreement, which aims to significantly decrease the amount of time needed to investigate a criminal’s online activities. Under this Agreement, both the U.S. and U.K., with proper authorization, can demand electronic data regarding serious crimes directly from technology companies based in either country. With Facebook making the transition to end-to-end encryption, however, law enforcement agencies in both countries will be unable to access encrypted messages.
In his announcement about the company’s privacy-focused vision, Zuckerberg addressed the inherent challenges end-to-end encryption would cause law enforcement. He noted, however, that Facebook is working to improve its ability to identify and stop bad actors by examining data relating to areas other than the messages’ substance, such as patterns of activity. Zuckerberg also pointed to the importance of private online messaging for those who live under oppressive regimes to freely express themselves.