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Facebook Messenger audio and video calls get end-to-end encryption, Instagram DMs to follow

Facebook’s move to bring more of its services under the E2E umbrella is a win for privacy advocates despite many governments supporting backdoors to encryption. 

Facebook on August 13 announced that it is expanding end-to-end encryption (E2E) to Messenger audio and video calls and soon to Instagram DMs. The company is following up on the commitment it made in March 2019 to bring E2E to all its messaging services.

E2E is seen as the gold standard in privacy protection when it comes to messaging and personal communication services, and platforms like WhatsApp and iMessages have long prided themselves in offering this protection, but many governments, including India’s, and law enforcement agencies around the world are not for E2E because it impedes their access to information for investigations. Given this, Facebook’s decision to continue expanding E2E is a win for privacy advocates.

What all did Facebook announce?

E2E for Messenger voice and video calls: Facebook has been offering an optional E2E feature for one-on-one text chats on its Messenger app since 2016. Stating that in the past year, it has seen a surge in the use of audio and video calling with more than 150 million video calls a day on Messenger, Facebook announced that is expanding the E2E option to audio and video calls as well.

“The content of your messages and calls in an end-to-end encrypted conversation is protected from the moment it leaves your device to the moment it reaches the receiver’s device. This means that nobody else, including Facebook, can see or listen to what’s sent or said.” – Facebook

E2E coming soon to group chats and calls in Messenger: “We’ll begin testing end-to-end encryption for group chats, including voice and video calls, for friends and family that already have an existing chat thread or are already connected,” Facebook said.

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E2E coming soon to Instagram DMs: Facebook is also looking to bring opt-in E2E for one-on-one message conversations and calls on Instagram in the coming weeks. “Similar to how Messenger works today, you need to have an existing chat or be following each other to start an end-to-end encrypted DM,” the company said. It will start as a limited test with adults in certain countries, the company added.

Where do governments stand regarding E2E?

  • India’s new IT Rules require breaking E2E: India’s new IT Rules 2021 requires large messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger to enable tracing the originator of a message. But the platforms have argued that this is not possible without breaking E2E. Both Facebook and WhatsApp have in fact filed lawsuits against the Indian government over this provision.
  • Five Eyes statement: In October 2020, India, along with the Five Eyes intelligence alliance and Japan, said that they want companies to build backdoors to end-to-end encrypted platforms for access to law enforcement agencies, according to an international statement signed by the seven countries. The Five Eyes alliance comprises USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Representatives from India and Japan who signed the statement have not been identified. The statement argued that end-to-end encryption poses “significant challenges to public safety”, especially to the safety of “highly vulnerable members” of society like sexually exploited children.
  • European Commission does not support backdoors: In September 2020, the European Commission said that backdoors should not be introduced to encrypted communications and that encryption software should not be weakened.
  • Letter to Mark Zuckerberg: In October 2019, UK, USA, and Australia had written an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, asking him not to introduce end-to-end encryption to Messenger and Instagram without backdoors for law enforcement agencies, citing loss of access to content that helps agencies nab terrorists, pedophiles, and other serious criminals as the reason. In response, Messenger and WhatsApp had refused to build backdoors citing privacy and cybersecurity. 129 signatories had urged the company to resist introducing end-to-end encryption on Facebook’s messaging platforms, while 58 civil society organisations had supported it.

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