Facebook announced a couple of years ago plans to merge all its instant messenger apps into a unified chat system that will allow any user to find and talk to anyone else without requiring an account on the other platforms. In practice, this means Facebook Messenger users could talk to Instagram and WhatsApp users. This idea presented an obvious problem that Facebook addressed right away. WhatsApp is the only Facebook chat app that supports end-to-end encryption by default, while Messenger and Instagram don’t. Mark Zuckerberg said at the time that the unified messaging application would also support end-to-end encryption.
Facebook made a significant step forward last year when Facebook Messenger and Instagram received cross-app messaging support. However, they don’t work with WhatsApp at this time. End-to-end encryption might be the culprit here, and Facebook reconfirmed plans to add the security feature to Messenger and Instagram. However, end-to-end encryption won’t be available on the other apps at least until 2022.
“Two years ago, Mark Zuckerberg announced a privacy-focused vision for social networking centered on messaging,” Facebook wrote in a blog post a few days ago. “It will be built on the principles of private interactions, encryption, reducing permanence, safety, interoperability, and secure data storage.”
Facebook says it has built a team focused on delivering this vision on Messenger and has talked to people about what they want from their chat apps. Unsurprisingly, instant messenger app users want their chat apps to be reliable but also private and secure. Privacy and security appear quite a few times in the blog post, and Facebook notes that it’s already working on incorporating default end-to-end encryption into its apps.
But the highly coveted feature will be ready in 2022 at the earliest:
We’re also working hard to bring default end-to-end encryption to all of our messaging services. This will protect people’s private messages and mean only the sender and recipient, not even us, can access their messages. While we expect to make more progress on default end-to-end encryption for Messenger and Instagram Direct this year, it’s a long-term project and we won’t be fully end-to-end encrypted until sometime in 2022 at the earliest. Moreover, the safety features we’ve already introduced are designed to work with end-to-end encryption, and we plan to continue building strong safety features into our services.
Facebook’s blog post also lists the key takeaways from its Messenger policy workshop, where the privacy and security themes reappear. One of the conclusions Facebook drew from its meetings is that “people want messaging that’s free from unwanted intrusions.” Facebook addresses unwanted interactions in chat apps under this category. But ads also happen to be an unwanted intrusion in instant messenger apps. Facebook doesn’t mention advertising anywhere in the blog post.
Balancing the need to track users and end-to-end encryption will be the most difficult part for Facebook. That’s why monetizing WhatsApp has been difficult following the costly acquisition. But WhatsApp already had strong encryption in place by then.
Alternatives to Facebook Messenger and Instagram that offer end-to-end encryption already exist. iMessage on Apple devices and Signal support the security feature. Telegram chats can be protected with end-to-end encryption, and Google is adding it to RCS messages on Android. These are also alternatives to WhatsApp for those users determined to leave the Facebook app once the new privacy features roll out.
Facebook’s full blog post on the future of messaging apps is available at this link.