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Facebook rolls out video conference platform Messenger Rooms, but is it a safer alternative?

Messenger Rooms has been built into the Messenger platform | Source: Facebook Blog

Facebook, on April 24, rolled out its video conference platform called Messenger Rooms, which can accommodate upto 50 people and has no time limit to conferences. The platform — a potential competitor to Zoom — will be built into Facebook’s Messenger service, and people without a Facebook profile will be able to join calls. Facebook says that the service will soon be rolled out to Instagram Direct, WhatsApp and the company’s smart displays, Portal, as well. At the time of publication, we could not find the feature on both the iOS and Android Messenger app, and have asked Facebook whether it is available in India yet.

Facebook claims that rooms will allow users to lock a video call, and once a call is locked, no one else can join, except a group admin for rooms created through a group. Users can report a room name or submit feedback about a room if they think it violates Facebook’s community guidelines, but the company claims that it doesn’t listen to your audio or video calls (more on that below). If a user has blocked someone on Facebook or Messenger, they will not be allowed to join the same room.

Messenger Rooms has been built into the Messenger platform | Source: Facebook Blog

Facebook’s video conference platform comes as Zoom has seen massive spike in growth owing to COVID-19 related lockdowns around the world — its user base ballooned from 10 million to 200 million in a matter of months. Skype has introduced a conference call feature that allows users to initiate or join group calls without needing to have a Skype account, or the app. Facebook’s own WhatsApp now allows video calls with upto eight participants instead of four.

How safe is Messenger Rooms?

Facebook is trying to present its video conference solution as one which is privacy focused — which isn’t surprising given the security mishaps that Zoom has been subject to. However, it is worth noting that Rooms is not end-to-end encrypted, as it is based on the Messenger platform. This will also pose a potential challenge to the company when it tries to scale the service to WhatsApp, which is end-to-end encrypted.

While Facebook says that it doesn’t watch or listen to audio or video calls, it also says that “across our services, we work with outside vendors that help us do things like reviewing and addressing issues reported by users and we may share information with these partners, like the name of a room and who’s in it, in order to do this work”. The only saving grace for this particular condition is that Facebook “require[s] these partners to adhere to strict data confidentiality and security obligations”.

While the service provides the option to join a call without necessarily having a Facebook profile, the company says that it collects data from Rooms regardless of whether a user has joined through one of its apps or without logging into an account. Facebook will receive data such as users’ device and browser type, their product usage information, and technical information, even when they don’t have a Facebook profile. The company does say that audio and video won’t be used to target ads at users, and that there are no ads on Rooms. However, it is worth noting that Facebook had hired contractors to listen in to users’ private conversations on Messenger, according to Bloomberg.

Facebook claims that Rooms’ links are “difficult for hackers to guess” as they have a string of random characters and digits at the end, with numbers and letters in different cases. “This makes it challenging for hackers to guess the exact combination of characters, and a new link is generated every time you create a room,” the company said.

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