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Facebook actually does the right thing on privacy for once and won’t give Trump a backdoor

Published Dec 10th, 2019 10:50AM EST
William Barr letter to Facebook
Image: RollingNews/Shutterstock

Mark Zuckerberg is everyone’s favorite punching bag when it comes to beating up on Facebook for all its many perceived privacy violations — often for good reason. Over the years as Facebook has chased scale, the company has also cut corners along the way when it comes to privacy and keeping users’ data secure. However, the founder of the biggest social network in the world has just signaled it’s prepared to stand up to the Trump administration in a fight that has not gotten nearly the attention that it deserves thus far.

After receiving an open letter from world leaders including US Attorney General William Barr demanding that Facebook weaken its encryption protocols to make it easier for governments to get a look at what users are doing across the platform, Facebook’s response came on Monday. That response basically boils down to — absolutely not, we won’t do it.

In that previous letter, officials from the US, UK, and Australia demanded a so-called “backdoor” into Facebook. Something that would be tantamount to Facebook building a weakness into its own encryption that governments could exploit when they needed insight into what certain users are doing for law enforcement or national security purposes. If that sounds ominous, that’s because such a thing is frighteningly bad. How would you feel if someone demanded that you build a special point of access into your home that bypasses the alarm and lock on the front door?

Needless to say, Facebook’s response was simple and direct. Stan Chudnovsky, the head of Facebook Messenger (who we’ve interviewed in the past here about how important private messaging is to the company) along with WhatsApp boss Will Cathcart wrote that: “It is simply impossible to create such a backdoor for one purpose and not expect others to try and open it.

“People’s private messages would be less secure and the real winners would be anyone seeking to take advantage of that weakened security. That is not something we are prepared to do.”

The great thing about end-to-end encryption, which is integral to apps like Signal and WhatsApp, is that no one else can view the contents of messages except both parties on either end of the exchange. It’s remarkable to see Facebook stand up to a request to weaken that protection, and hopefully the company is saying in private what it’s also telling government leaders publicly. “Preserving the prominence of American values online requires strong protections for privacy and security, including strong encryption,” reads the opening statement from Jay Sullivan, Messenger’s director of product management for privacy and integrity, who was to testify at a Senate hearing on Tuesday.

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.