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Is Facebook Trying to Analyze Users’ Encrypted Messages?

August 30, 2021

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In its many years of being the leading app for fast and simple online chat, WhatsApp has been through a lot, including a privacy policy that has sparked some concern. The Facebook-owned platform boasts end-to-end encrypted messaging that provides users with increased security. However, a recent report indicates that Facebook is trying to bring two natural enemies to the same table: security and targeted ads. Is Facebook trying to analyze the users’ encrypted messages without reading their texts? Here’s why WhatsApp may spark a new debate with homomorphic encryption.

Personalized Ads and Good Security Practices 

Almost every day, we are bombarded with ads referencing all sorts of things we’ve looked up online some time or another. Whether we’re talking about Wish items we don’t need or gadget deals, Facebook’s forced advertising is about to be fed by our own “safe” WhatsApp conversations.

According to a new report from The Information, Facebook has confirmed that it is recruiting a team of artificial intelligence experts to study ways of analyzing encrypted data but not decrypting it. This idea is still in its infancy, but there is a possibility that these methods will let developers use WhatsApp users’ messages for personalized ads.

The phenomenon has been dubbed homomorphic encryption, and researchers hope the results will help companies extract the necessary information from the data while maintaining privacy and protecting against cyberattacks. Facebook has already posted recruitment ads on its website for the study.

Ironically, this technique could be Facebook’s answer to accusations of “dirty” privacy practices. Basically, the giant can continue to pump out targeted advertising based on user information while complying with authorities’ requirements about strengthening security and maintaining privacy.

“For Facebook, homomorphic encryption could offer a way to continue to make money from ads that are targeted based on what it knows about individual users while also answering calls from lawmakers to take privacy more seriously and prevent the misuse or breach of its data. And it could aid the company’s effort to make money from WhatsApp, whose messages are encrypted, meaning Facebook can’t use them to target ads. Facebook has considered a workaround to target ads to WhatsApp users in the meantime, but homomorphic encryption could allow Facebook to analyze the data without actually reading it or sharing it directly with advertisers,” wrote The Information.

Will Cathcart, Head of WhatsApp: “We’re not pursuing homomorphic encryption for WhatsApp”

WhatsApp’s Will Cathcart explained Facebook’s strategy for targeted ads. He said developers would not use homomorphic encryption for this purpose. Cathcart brought up the point that users should be skeptical of such claims about readable encrypted messages.

“We’re not pursuing homomorphic encryption for WhatsApp. I’ve been asked this before. 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 wrote on Twitter, days after an interview with Australian Strategic Policy Institute in which he explained the company’s position on the matter: “The reality is that we are in an arms race for security on the Internet. The threats are growing by the year, they get worse. They’re not just hackers, they’re hostile governments. I think security will need to continue to evolve and get better. At WhatsApp, we will keep adding security technology as it becomes available or as we come up with it. There are sometimes talks about these things like homomorphic encryption or different ways to find a magic solution that will both keep people’s content secure but allow law enforcement or companies to access it. There are technical problems with a lot of those things that are out there, but stepping back and just thinking about the trend of technology I’d be wary of things that say: “Hey, we can see all the messages, just in the good cases, but we won’t have a way to see all the messages in the bad.” The reality is that’s usually not how technology works. Either you can see the messages or you can’t. Maybe there’ll be some innovative solution, but I’d be a little skeptical of it. Overall, we’re just going to keep adding more security, as we see threats continue to grow”.

With security threats rising and big companies taking the issues seriously by allowing users to decide which apps can access their data, it’s important to know which data mining methods can be invasive. For now, it does not seem entirely possible to put homomorphic encryption to use because the technology is still in its infancy. However, it should be noted that if end-to-end encryption is tampered with one way or another, the implications are very significant.