Do you know the main difference between Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, the two Meta Group communication apps? The answer is important: it is end-to-end encryption. Roughly, this security layer makes it possible to encrypt the content of messages when they pass from the sender to the recipient, that is to say that it transforms the texts into a set of incomprehensible characters. Only the two participants in the conversation – at each “end” – have the key to encrypt and decrypt the content.
With this protection, anyone who intercepts the communication – on the network or on the servers of the company that manages the application – could not read it (at least, in theory). In other words, the conversations of WhatsApp users (but also other apps like Signal) are much better protected than those of Messenger. That’s why, in a blog post published on August 11, Facebook announced that it was launching tests to introduce end-to-end encryption by default on Messenger. This measure would have avoided the scandal that erupted earlier in the week, linked to the terrible story of a police investigation for clandestine abortion in the United States. A scandal that revived the hashtag #DeleteFacebook (let’s delete Facebook).
A Messenger conversation at the center of a court decision
On Tuesday, the American press relayed Facebook’s collaboration with the Nebraska police on an abortion case, while the country has been under tension on this subject since the Supreme Court revoked the Roe v. Wade. Subject to a search warrant issued by the courts in June, the social network transmitted the data it held on a 17-year-old girl, Celeste, and her mother. With in the lot, the Messenger conversations between the two.
Celeste was accused of having performed an abortion (by medical means) outside the hospital, at the end of her 28th week (6th month) of pregnancy. She would thus have defied several laws of Nebraska, which prohibits abortion beyond the 20th week except in cases of serious or mortal danger for the pregnant woman, and would risk several years in prison, just like her mother. These laws existed before the revocation of Roe v. Wade but the case has caused a stir because it hints at the role social media could have in the controversial crackdown on abortion.
And for good reason: it was from elements of the discussion between Celeste and her mother on Messenger that the justice authorized a search of the homes of the two accused, which led to the seizure of 13 smartphones and computers and the extraction of 24 gigabytes of data. The two women used the Facebook app to discuss buying the medicine needed for the abortion, then what they planned to do to hide the body of the aborted fetus.
On its site, Facebook clearly explains that it can cooperate with law enforcement in legal proceedings, as required by US law. This observation is also valid in France, the company specifying all the same that “yourequest under a mutual legal assistance treaty or a letter rogatory may be necessary before any communication of the contents of an account“. But in the context of the abortion case, the women involved were probably unaware of this possibility, and of the danger to which they were exposing themselves. This is where end-to-end encryption could have protect, since the content of the conversations requested by the courts would have been illegible.
Generalized end-to-end encryption, an expected measure
Facebook already offers end-to-end encryption to Messenger users, but it’s just a manually enabled option that remains largely unknown. In other words, deploying end-to-end encryption by default would affect the more than one billion Messenger users worldwide, and would particularly protect the least informed among them about cybersecurity issues. In its latest press release, Facebook announced for the first time a date for this deployment, admittedly vague: 2023.
While this measure has been awaited by privacy advocates for years, it does not only have allies in the political world. On the side of the European Union, for example, voices are regularly raised to ask encrypted messaging applications such as WhatsApp and Signal to build “back doors” that would allow authorities to bypass encryption and access messages in the clear. . These opponents of encryption justify their demands by the needs of the fight against criminals.
But these claims are never forced into the debate so far. And in any case, the builders of the applications, Signal in the lead, have repeatedly declared their opposition to any such project. They point out that such backdoors could also be used by totalitarian governments or be exploited by cybercriminals.