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WhatsApp refuses to use Facebook’s creepy encryption-beating tech for targeted ads

Published Aug 4th, 2021 11:15AM EDT
WhatsApp Encryption
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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

The good news remains that WhatsApp is defending end-to-end encryption publicly. The company said over the years that it doesn’t intend to remove WhatsApp’s strong encryption. Facebook had to double down on that earlier this year when it forced the new WhatsApp privacy policy on all of its users. It kept repeating in marketing materials that WhatsApp chats and messages will continue to have strong encryption.

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.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.