POLITICS + GOVERNMENT

How to make sure your private messages stay private

Aug 16, 2022, 5:30 AM
FILE - In this March 29, 2018, file photo, the logo for Facebook appears on screens at the Nasdaq M...
FILE - In this March 29, 2018, file photo, the logo for Facebook appears on screens at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York's Times Square (AP Photo /Richard Drew, File)
(AP Photo /Richard Drew, File)
Originally Published: 14 AUG 22 08:44 ET

 (CNN) — Last year, Facebook-parent Meta effectively pushed back its timetable for rolling out end-to-end encryption by default across its various social platforms, with an executive saying the privacy-enhancing change would not happen until sometime in 2023.

The delay came under a new spotlight this week after news broke that Facebook messages sent through Messenger and obtained by law enforcement had been used to charge a Nebraska teen and her mother with having an illegal abortion.

Expert gives tips on conquering your downward social media scroll

The case began before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, and Meta said the search warrant it received did not mention abortion. But to some digital privacy experts, it highlighted the risks women now face with their online data in a post-Roe America — and the urgency for tech companies like Facebook to enable end-to-end encryption by default.

End-to-end encryption refers to the practice of coding messages so that only the sender and recipient can see their contents without the messaging platform having any access to them. While a large subset of users may not actively consider the level and type of encryption their messages have, it is becoming increasingly important that they do — or, some experts say, that tech companies make a choice for them.

“The end of Roe throws into sharp relief the paramount importance of turning on [end-to-end encryption] by default instead of making users navigate security and privacy settings for themselves,” said Rianna Pfefferkorn, a research scholar at the Stanford Internet Observatory whose work focuses on encryption.

Facebook’s long road to accomplishing that, however, highlights the broader challenges facing the industry and the tradeoffs between privacy and convenience that companies and users increasingly have to make.

Facebook’s evolving approach to encryption

Meta’s mobile messaging platform WhatsApp already offers default end-to-end encryption, as well as encrypted backups of users’ messages. In recent years, Meta has worked to expand and improve its encryption options for its other services.

Is it time for parents to remove kids from social media?

In April 2021, a Facebook executive said the company wouldn’t be able to implement end-to-end encryption by default across all its products until “sometime in 2022 at the earliest.” Seven months later, another Facebook executive, Antigone Davis, penned an op-ed piece in a British publication revealing the option wouldn’t be available “until sometime in 2023.”

Facebook, along with other tech companies, has long had to contend with pressure from government officials around the world over making messages accessible to law enforcement agencies in order to prevent bad actors from using their platforms for illegal activities.

In her piece, Davis noted the “ongoing debate about how tech companies can continue to combat abuse and support the vital work of law enforcement if we can’t access your messages.” She said the company was “engaging with privacy and safety experts, civil society and governments to make sure we get this right.”

Days after the Nebraska news this week, Meta announced it would start testing default end-to-end encryption for Facebook Messenger as well as a “secure storage” option for encrypted messages on Facebook. A Meta spokesperson said the timing of updates was unrelated.

As part of its updates, Meta appeared to offer an example of how it’s trying to walk the line between bolstering privacy and combating abuse. The company said it would only be able to see encrypted messages in live conversations if users report them, for example, over harassment concerns.

Meta also reiterated it plans to extend the default option to all its messaging services “sometime in 2023.”

Despite the delay, Meta’s encryption goals appear closer to being realized than many of its messaging peers.

“Facebook recognizes how important encryption is for protecting our personal privacy,” Pfefferkorn said. “To that end, it has been working for years on making Messenger more like WhatsApp.”

What you need to know to protect your messages

Beyond Meta’s suite of apps, it can be hard to keep straight the level of encryption provided by popular messaging services.

Twitter does not encrypt direct messages on its platform, something the platform’s possible future owner Elon Musk has said he wants to change. Other messaging apps such as Signal do offer end-to-end encryption by default, while Telegram allows users to opt in. SMS text messages aren’t encrypted at all.

Some platforms, such as Apple’s iMessage, have a more nuanced encryption profile across devices and services. While iMessage is end-to-end encrypted by default, message backups to iCloud may not be, and the key to decrypt those messages is also stored on iCloud. That means if law enforcement gain access to your iCloud account, they could theoretically have both pieces of the puzzle to access your messages — even from an encrypted service.

“If you use iMessage, turn off iCloud backups [and] turn off iCloud backups of your WhatsApp,” said Laura Edelson, a postdoctoral researcher with the Cybersecurity for Democracy initiative at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. “The first thing to do if you are an iPhone user is going to your iPhone settings and see what’s being backed up.”

In general, she said, the ideal would be using a messaging platform that is end-to-end encrypted by default. But if you do use a platform such as Facebook Messenger that isn’t, Edelson recommends going into your settings and enabling it. She also suggests nudging the people you text to use more secure platforms such as Signal.

But as more Americans weigh encryption options in the wake of the Roe ruling, it’s important to be mindful of potential drawbacks, too. For example, losing your phone or forgetting your password could mean those messages are lost forever.

While WhatsApp currently offers encrypted backups, most other messaging apps do not, and backing up your messages could make them potentially vulnerable in a way that defeats the purpose of encrypting them in the first place.

“We have trained users that they can access their messages anywhere, from any computer, just by logging in, and that if they need to there is some third party who can recover them,” Edelson said. “But what inherently comes with that if there is some third party who can recover your messages for you, they can recover your messages for anyone else.”

Still, for those concerned about the shifting legal landscape, the tradeoffs may be worth it.

“No one needs absolute privacy until the moment they need absolute privacy,” she said, “and then they really need it.”

The-CNN-Wire
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Today’s Top Stories

Politics + Government

US President Joe Biden discusses funding for the "Hudson Tunnel Project" at the West Side Rail Yard...
Elizabeth Weiler

FBI finds no classified documents at Biden’s Delaware vacation home

    (CNN) — The FBI has completed its search of President Joe Biden’s Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, home and no documents with classified markings were found, according to a source familiar with the matter. Biden’s personal attorney Bob Bauer confirmed earlier in the morning that investigators were searching the home. The search was planned and had the […]
15 hours ago
Watershed Enhancement Trust, which aims to get water back to the lake. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret ...
Amie Schaeffer

$40M Great Salt Lake trust beginning work with newly formed council

The council will assist the trust as it looks for solutions to improve lake water levels.
15 hours ago
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at an annual leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish ...
Kate Sullivan and Kylie Atwood, CNN

Nikki Haley expected to announce presidential run in Charleston on Feb. 15

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is expected to announce her intention to run for President in a few weeks.
15 hours ago
A bill that could make its way to the Utah legislature in the 2023 session would require school dis...
Mark Jones

Potential redesign of new Utah State Flag emphasizes Native American tribes

Sen. Dan McCay (R-Riverton) is sponsoring a bill that would call for a slight redesign of the new Utah State Flag.
2 days ago
A pair of bills in the Utah Legislature address if and how Utah teens could use social media. One w...
Lindsay Aerts

Bill would require parental permission for Utah teens to use social media

Two bills circulating at the 2023 Utah Legislative Session involve social media, parents, and their teens. A group of tech CEOs opposes one.
2 days ago
Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., departs after attending a House GOP conference meeting on Capitol Hill ...
Manu Raju and Melanie Zanona, CNN

George Santos tells House Republicans he wants off of his committees until issues are resolved

Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia told CNN that it was Santos' decision that he made on his own to "abstain" from the committees.
2 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Banner with Cervical Cancer Awareness Realistic Ribbon...
Intermountain Health

Five Common Causes of Cervical Cancer – and What You Can Do to Lower Your Risk

January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness month and cancer experts at Intermountain Health are working to educate women about cervical cancer, the tests that can warn women about potential cancer, and the importance of vaccination.
Kid holding a cisco fish at winterfest...
Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Get Ready for Fun at the 2023 Bear Lake Monster Winterfest

The Bear Lake Monster Winterfest is an annual weekend event jam-packed full of fun activities the whole family can enjoy. This year the event will be held from January 27-29 at the Utah Bear Lake State Park Marina and Sunrise Resort and Event Center in Garden City, Utah. 
happy friends with sparklers at christmas dinner...
Macey's

15 Easy Christmas Dinner Ideas

We’ve scoured the web for you and narrowed down a few of our favorite Christmas dinner ideas to make your planning easy. Choose from the dishes we’ve highlighted to plan your meal or start brainstorming your own meal plan a couple of weeks before to make sure you have time to shop and prepare.
Spicy Homemade Loaded Taters Tots...
Macey's

5 Game Day Snacks for the Whole Family (with recipes!)

Try these game day snacks to make watching football at home with your family feel like a special occasion. 
Happy joyful smiling casual satisfied woman learning and communicates in sign language online using...
Sorenson

The Best Tools for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Workplace Success

Here are some of the best resources to make your workplace work better for Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
Team supporters celebrating at a tailgate party...
Macey's

8 Delicious Tailgate Foods That Require Zero Prep Work

In a hurry? These 8 tailgate foods take zero prep work, so you can fuel up and get back to what matters most: getting hyped for your favorite
How to make sure your private messages stay private