Facebook Messenger Reportedly Plans to Adopt a Controversial Feature

June 1, 2016, 6:06 PM UTC
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduces a new messenger platform at the F8 summit in San Francisco, California, on March 25, 2015. AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
Josh Edelson—AFP via Getty Images

Facebook is poised to give its Messenger app an optional privacy upgrade.

The social network is considering implementing an end-to-end encrypted chat mode in Messenger in the coming months, reports the Guardian, citing three unnamed sources familiar with the plans. The mode would protect communications sent between users’ devices from the prying eyes of hackers and spies—although it would also inhibit the company’ ability to bake artificial intelligence into the system.

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Encryption scrambles data so that interlopers are unable to read it, including law enforcement officers and cloud-hosted virtual assistants. Machine learning technologies require access to data in order to parse information and serve up smart replies or suggestions.

Facebook (FB) is betting on monetizing Messenger through a combination of AI chat bots and sponsored partnerships with businesses and brands. By presenting the encrypted mode as opt-in, the company would presumably be protecting its ability to offer AI chat bot services by default to its more than 900 million monthly active users.

“We don’t comment on rumor or speculation,” a Facebook spokesperson told Fortune in an email.

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Google (GOOG) recently debuted Allo, a chat app that introduced an optional encrypted messaging feature, at its I/O developer conference last month. The company caught flack from privacy advocates for adding its “incognito” encrypted chat mode as an opt-in feature, rather than as a standard setting. These privacy advocates argued that communications services should offer top-notch security and privacy by default.

Apple (AAPL), for one, has planted a flag in the ground firmly in favor of privacy by default, as demonstrated in their recent battle with the Federal Bureau of Investigation over unlocking an iPhone used by a terrorist. That case involved data at rest—logs stored on a device—rather than data in transit, meaning messages sent from one device to another. (Apple iMessage also encrypts chats between Apple devices by default. Meanwhile, for the hyper-privacy conscious, iCloud record-keeping requires voluntary disabling.)

Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging app rolled out end-to-end encrypted for its more than one billion monthly active users earlier this year. The decision similarly frustrated law enforcement officers in Brazil, where the service was temporarily banned. Other chat apps that offer end-to-end encrypted messaging, include Signal, Wickr, and Telegram.

The increasing prevalence of encrypted products continues to pit technologists and privacy-conscious consumers against governments. Now the issue is growing more complicated as companies like Facebook and Google, which anticipate an oncoming wave of chat-bot virtual assistants, must grapple with balancing consumer privacy, newfangled AI features, and their business interests.

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