Facebook Messaging Encryption Best to Protect Privacy

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Jimmy H. Koo

Oct. 21 — Facebook Inc.'s message applications Messenger and WhatsApp have the best encryption security to protect consumer communications privacy, Amnesty International said Oct. 21.

Facebook, whose two messaging apps have a total of 2 billion users, is “doing the most to use encryption to respond to human rights threats, and is most transparent about the action it's taking,” Amnesty International said.

The ranking may not only be important to activists and individual users concerned about keeping their conversations private, but also to companies seeking to monetize privacy protection in the highly competitive mobile messaging market.

According to Bloomberg Intelligence, “mobile messaging apps may continue to outpace social networks in user growth as the former offer better privacy protection and user loyalty.”

Amnesty International said that end-to-end encryption should be the default setting and technology companies should “clearly inform users of the level of encryption applied to their messaging services.”

Encrypted Data

Tight encryption of user messaging has come under fire from some government and law enforcement officials seeking access to encrypted data for criminal investigations. This was demonstrated vividly in the attempt by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to force Apple Inc. to unlock a phone belonging to one of the San Bernardino, Calif. shooting terrorism suspects.

Amnesty International rated Apple Inc.'s iMessage and Facetime apps in second place for providing full default end-to-end encryption, but said Apple should do more to notify consumers about when their information is protected through end-to-end encryption.

The human rights organization ranked 11 companies that operate the most popular messaging apps based on how they protect online privacy and freedom of expression. The group examined whether the apps apply end-to-end encryption of content.

“WhatsApp is the only app where users are explicitly warned when end-to-end encryption is not applied to a particular chat, but Messenger does not apply end-to-end encryption as a default, and does not warn users that regular conversations use a weaker form of encryption,” Amnesty International said.

Alphabet Inc.'s Google's messaging apps—Allo, Duo and Hangouts—came in at fourth place in the Amnesty International list. Duo has end-to-end encryption, but it is only an option on Allo, the report said. Google Hangouts doesn't encrypt messages at all, the report said. Google discloses government requests to access data and has publicly stated that it is against encryption backdoors to unlock devices or apps, Amnesty International found.

Messaging apps owned by Chinese investment holding company Tencent Holding Ltd.—WeChat and QQ—came in last, scoring zero out of 100. Tencent’s apps failed to meet any of the criteria and it was the only company in the list that hasn’t publicly stated that it won’t grant government request for access to encrypted messages, Amnesty International said.

BlackBerry Ltd.'s Messenger, which offers end-to-end encryption only as a paid subscription service, came in at 10th place. BlackBerry doesn't publish a transparency report and hasn't made a public commitment to freedom of expression, Amnesty International said.

Tencent, Facebook, Google, Apple and BlackBerry didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg BNA’s e-mail requests for comment.

By Jimmy H. Koo

To contact the reporter on this story: Jimmy H. Koo in Washington at jkoo@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Donald G. Aplin at daplin@bna.com

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