Facebook is planning to integrate the infrastructure of all of its subsidiary apps, WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger, so messages can extend across platforms, the New York Times reported this week.
Four people involved with the project told the Times that the platforms will continue to operate as standalone apps, though they’ll be integrated in the back end, allowing people to communicate between one service and another.
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In a statement to media, Facebook said the discussions were the beginning of a “long process.”
“We’re working on making more of our messaging products end-to-end encrypted and considering ways to make it easier to reach friends and family across networks,” a spokesperson told media.
“As you would expect, there is a lot of discussion and debate as we begin the long process of figuring out all the details of how this will work.”
However, following a turbulent year fraught with controversy, the news of Facebook’s potential plans to unify the services under its umbrella has been alarming to many, and has sparked a strong reaction online.
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In a thread on Twitter, John Hopkins University Professor Matthew Green warned consumers not to jump to conclusions about the update — stating that it could be good or bad.
He suggests that the integration could mean two things: either that the level of encryption on Instagram and Messenger will be upgraded to match the quality of WhatsApp — which already has end-to-end encryption — or that the encryption of WhatsApp could be downgraded to allow compatibility with the other two services.
Furthermore, he adds that users who register with one app and not the other will inevitably be relinquishing their data to the parent company, Facebook.
“Anyway, the summary is: this move could be potentially be good or bad for security/privacy. But given recent history and financial motivations of Facebook, I wouldn’t bet my lunch money on ‘good’. Now is a great time to start moving important conversations off those services,” he concluded in the thread.
Other experts in favour of a move to end-to-end encryption quickly jumped in to contest this prediction.
Tech evangelist, software developer and many-time startup founder Alec Muffet tweeted his thoughts as well. While he urged caution on the part of users, he largely supported the move and added that — for those who are concerned about Facebook mining data from their personal messages — messaging content is not a good way to monetize a messenger platform.
“‘Civil Society’ has had it wrong for a long time, all the scare-stories about Facebook analysing message content. Truth: message content is a not a good way to monetize a messenger platform — but WhatsApp has to be paid-for somehow, therefore:”
Alex Stamos, a professor at Stanford researching “safe technology,” and former Chief Technology Officer at Facebook, also tweeted his support of the initiative because of the likelihood that integrating the platforms would force Facebook to extend end-to-end encryption to Instagram and Messenger.
He notes, however, that consumers should “demand transparency in the safety-privacy-UX balancing decisions and technical details.”
“I’m cautiously optimistic it’s a good thing,” Stamos later told Reuters. “My fear was that they were going to drop end-to-end encryption.”
Beyond concerns surrounding data privacy, Sam Weinstein, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, alluded to another enticing reason for Facebook to further intertwine these services.
Integrating the messaging services could make it harder for antitrust regulators to break up Facebook by undoing its acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram.
“If Facebook is worried about that, then one way it can defend itself is to integrate those services,” Weinstein said.
Regardless of improvements to security, any metadata integration will likely let Facebook learn more about users, linking identifiers such as phone numbers and email addresses for those using the services independently of each other.
Facebook will likely be able to use this data to charge more for advertising and targeted services on its platform.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this past week addressing many of the circulating concerns about Facebook and its handling of user data.
He outlines in the piece that in order to allow everyone to connect, Facebook needs to be able to offer services for free. However, in order to offer services for free, the company needs to run data-driven ads.
“If we’re committed to serving everyone, then we need a service that is affordable to everyone. The best way to do that is to offer services for free, which ads enable us to do,” wrote Zuckerberg in the op-ed.
This debate is the latest in a long line of data-related scandals which plagued the company last year.
Facebook kicked off 2018 with Zuckerberg promising he would fix “important issues” with the platform, after many had come to suspect it played a role in influencing the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
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After several rounds of fake news hearings across Europe and the United States, investigations were published by the New York Times in March, citing a UK-based analytics firm called Cambridge Analytica which gained access to data from tens of millions of Facebook users.
After launching a dating feature and weathering the high-profile exit of both the founders of WhatsApp and Instagram, new reports surfaced in June, saying that Facebook had given device makers nearly uninhibited access to data on its users.
These are just the highlights from what made for — by the standards of corporations of all sizes — a bad year for Facebook.
While the verdict is still out on whether the integration of the messaging services on Facebook’s core platforms is good or bad for the end user, one thing has already been made clear in 2019: the world will be watching Facebook closely.
— With files from Reuters.