After the almost unending litany of scandals that have rocked Facebook, many drawing intense criticism from the US government, the social networking giant is ready to turn a new leaf. Ironically, it is also receiving criticism from the US, specifically the Justice Department. In its efforts to begger protect the privacy of users that it has violated, Facebook is reportedly planning to introduce strong encryption in WhatsApp, Instagram, and its other messaging services. For Facebook, it is to protect users but the government insists it will be putting them in danger in the long run.
This line of back and forth isn’t really new. It started back in 2016 when, in light of the San Bernardino shooting, a judged ordered Apple to unlock the shooter’s encrypted iPhone. Apple refused on several grounds of privacy and technology which brought it into a high-profile conflict with the US government. The iPhone was eventually cracked without Apple’s involvement thanks to new hacking and forensics tools. Decrypting messaging services, however, is much more difficult.
That is why Attorney General William Barr is making the same appeal and arguments to tech companies that we’ve been hearing for years. It can all be boiled down to this: it’s OK to implement security features like end-to-end encryption as long as companies create a backdoor and that they give companies a key to that backdoor.
There are both technical and practical reasons why tech companies, developers, and privacy advocates challenge that demand. The way this kind of encryption works, companies like Facebook aren’t even supposed to have the encryption keys. But if they do, they become the weakest link that makes the entire security chain ineffective. Anyone who has a key can open that backdoor and, given how rampant hacking is these days, that’s more a question of when rather than if.
Facebook is being dragged into the spotlight again because of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s plans to harden the security of its messaging services. It doesn’t help that Facebook has repeatedly been at the center of controversies involving privacy, crime, and politics. Ironically, this heat from the Justice Department could make it the next champion of privacy.