The most popular app chat in the world belongs to Facebook, which paid nearly $20 billion for WhatsApp a few years ago. But Facebook isn’t making money off of it, and ever stronger WhatsApp encryption is in the way. The company can’t target users with personalized ads because the information in chats is end-to-end encrypted. Therefore, personal data is unreadable. A new report says that Facebook is already studying ways to “spy” on encrypted conversations to deliver personalized ads. However, WhatsApp’s top executive has already denied the report, saying WhatsApp isn’t considering the feature.
The creepy new tech
Facebook is one of several companies studying a technology called homomorphic encryption, according to The Information. In addition to Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google are also said to be researching the same technology.
The social network has a team of AI researchers studying “ways of analyzing encrypted data without decrypting it.” With this tech, Facebook would be able to analyze encrypted WhatsApp messages and use the data to target advertising without breaking encryption.
Facebook is recruiting more experts according to recent job ads. This suggests Facebook wants to preserve privacy while “simultaneously expanding the efficiency of Facebook’s market-leading advertising systems.”
More disturbingly, the report also notes that Facebook had considered a more invasive workaround to target ads to WhatsApp users. But it’s just the homomorphic encryption tech that would allow the company to analyze data without reading it or sharing it directly with advertisers.
Facebook’s contentious relationship with user privacy
Homomorphic encryption aside, Facebook has been at the center of various privacy scandals in the past few years. The recent WhatsApp privacy change is one of the latest examples.
At the same time, Facebook is also opposed to Apple’s strong privacy protections that come with iOS and iPadOS. Apple now forces developers to inform users before collecting personal data across apps. What’s worse for Facebook is that it has to ask for permission to track users on iPhone and iPad. That’s something the social network never had to worry about before iOS 14. As a result, Facebook was the only company to protest vehemently against Apple’s privacy protections earlier this year.
That said, Facebook made a strange pivot to encryption a few years ago. The company announced that it wants to unify Facebook Messenger, Instagram chat, and WhatsApp into the same end-to-end encrypted service. So far, Facebook has only merged the first two. Those happen to be unencrypted chat experiences.
WhatsApp encryption is here to stay
We're not pursuing homomorphic encryption for @WhatsApp. I've been asked this before (link below). We should be skeptical of technical claims that apps like ours could see messages in "good" cases only. That's just not how technology works. https://t.co/Y55p25QmR8 https://t.co/mZgNYyorkm
— Will Cathcart (@wcathcart) August 3, 2021
Reacting to The Information’s report, WhatsApp boss Will Cathcart said that WhatsApp isn’t pursuing homomorphic encryption. “We should be skeptical of technical claims that apps like ours could see messages in ‘good’ cases only. That’s just not how technology works,” he said.
That doesn’t change the fact that Facebook seems to be studying homomorphic encryption. Or that WhatsApp belongs to Facebook.