- The Washington Times - Friday, July 8, 2016

Facebook on Friday said its beginning to offer users the option of securing their messages with end-to-end encryption, a maneuver that may soon allow more than a billion account holders to message one another across the social network under the radar of eavesdroppers.

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

By implementing end-to-end encryption, the feature aims to give Facebook 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.

“That means the messages are intended just for you and the other person — not anyone else, including us,” Facebook said in 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 has already 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 one billion. Yet while WhatsApp already rolled out end-to-end encryption to its users this past April, together the two programs 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 Matt Green told Wired.

Regardless, the rollout that begun 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 2015 terror attack in San Bernardino 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 around $6 million in funds belonging to Facebook after the company failed to assist authorities intent on deciphering communications sent over WhatsApp related to an international narcotics investigation.

Additionally, the underlying technology that enables end-to-end encryption is for now 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 their 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 around 200 million users in 2014 to around 900 million currently, 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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