- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 10, 2016

Facebook says it has begun to offer users the option of securing their messages with end-to-end encryption, a service that soon may allow more than a billion account holders — potentially including jihad and other terror groups — to message one another below the radar of law enforcement surveillance.

The “secret conversation” feature was slated to be rolled out to select users starting last Friday, followed by a wider deployment later this summer, the company said in a statement.

By implementing end-to-end encryption, Facebook aims to give its users a way of communicating over the network’s proprietary Messenger application in a manner intended to make correspondence undecipherable to anyone other than the sender and recipient, a possibility that alarms law enforcement officials.

“That means the messages are intended just for you and the other person — not anyone else, including us,” Facebook said in a blog post announcing the feature Friday.

The secret conversation function uses a previously released communication protocol called Signal, a free and open-source software that can be audited by anyone and already has been implemented by other messaging programs, including WhatsApp, Google Allo and an eponymous encryption app released in 2014.

Upon acquiring WhatsApp in 2014 for roughly $19 billion, Facebook inherited a service that now boasts a user base of roughly 1 billion. Yet while WhatsApp already rolled out end-to-end encryption to its users in April, the two programs together could provide a fair share of the connected world with the option of communicating in near-secrecy.

“This is just a huge number. It brings access to encrypted messaging to nearly a billion more people,” John Hopkins computer scientist and cryptologist Matthew D. Green told Wired magazine.

Regardless, the rollout that began Friday is all but certain to encounter obstacles along the way of attempting to bring easy-to-use and practically impenetrable encryption to Facebook users.

Law enforcement agencies have advocated adamantly during the last year against end-to-end encryption, especially in the wake of the December terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, where digital security measures taken by slain shooter Syed Farook prevented authorities from easily accessing evidence from his Apple iPhone.

More recently, the Brazilian government recently froze about $6 million in funds belonging to Facebook after the company failed to assist authorities intent on deciphering communications related to an international narcotics investigation sent over WhatsApp.

Additionally, the underlying technology that enables end-to-end encryption for now is forcing Facebook only to offer its secret conversation feature through its Messenger app, and users testing the functionality can only do so from a single device — meaning messages encrypted and sent using an iPhone, for example, won’t be legible to its author if viewed from a web browser or any platform other than the mobile device.

“It’s table stakes in the industry now for messaging apps to offer this to people,” Messenger product manager Tony Leach told Wired. “We wanted to make sure we’re doing what we can to make messaging private and secure.”

Facebook Messenger went from boasting about 200 million users in 2014 to about 900 million currently, The New York Times reported.

“I’m happy to praise it because deploying crypto to 900 million people is a good start,” Mr. Green of John Hopkins tweeted Friday. “A start. Not a finish.”

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