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Facebook says it will move to encrypted, auto-deleting messages — and warns that some countries might decide to ban it

Rob Price , Business Insider US
 Mar 08, 2019, 10:09 AM
Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
  • Facebook says it will make messages auto-delete and encrypted by default.
  • In a blog post published on Wednesday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company wanted to become a "privacy-focused communications platform".
  • Zuckerberg said Facebook would also refuse to store user data in countries with records of human-rights abuses, even if it means Facebook's services are banned as a result.

Facebook says it plans to move to encrypted, auto-deleting messages on its services by default as part of a broader strategic shift - even if the changes mean some countries decide to ban its service.

In a 3,000-word blog post published Wednesday on Facebook, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company wanted to focus on being a "privacy-focused communications platform."

The announcement came amid Facebook attempts to move past a string of damaging scandals around user privacy (as well as other issues), including the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the hack of tens of millions of users' data.

"I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won't stick around forever," Zuckerberg wrote. "This is the future I hope we will help bring about."

As such, Zuckerberg said Facebook would encrypt users' messages end to end, meaning Facebook itself, law enforcement, and anybody else can't read them; make messages ephemeral, "so we won't keep messages or stories around for longer than necessary to deliver the service or longer than people want them"; partially merge Facebook's apps so users can message one another from any of them (a move first reported by The New York Times); and refuse to store data in countries "with weak records on human rights like privacy and freedom of expression."

Facebook already end-to-end encrypts messages for WhatsApp by default and provides it as an opt-in feature for Messenger, as well as auto-deletes messages. But Zuckerberg said that would become the default for all of Facebook's messaging products.

Privacy advocates are likely to hail the move, but it may prove controversial in other quarters. Some in law enforcement have repeatedly railed against the difficulties that end-to-end encryption can create for investigations. And Facebook's inability to moderate encrypted chats on WhatsApp has led to organized disinformation campaigns ahead of Brazil's presidential election and is said to have helped spread hoaxes that led to lynchings in India.

"I understand that many people don't think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform - because frankly we don't currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services, and we've historically focused on tools for more open sharing," Zuckerberg wrote.

"But we've repeatedly shown that we can evolve to build the services that people really want, including in private messaging and stories."

Refusing to store user data in certain countries could frustrate some local governments, as the past few years have seen a push toward tech companies storing users' data in the countries where those users reside. Zuckerberg acknowledged that the move may even get Facebook's services banned in some parts of the world.

"Upholding this principle may mean that our services will get blocked in some countries, or that we won't be able to enter others anytime soon," he wrote. "That's a tradeoff we're willing to make. We do not believe storing people's data in some countries is a secure enough foundation to build such important internet infrastructure on."

It's not clear exactly when all of this will happen. Zuckerberg didn't give a concrete timeline, saying only that "over the next few years, we plan to rebuild more of our services around these ideas."

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