End-to-end encryption needs to be easier for users before Facebook embraces it
By Zach Miners
PCWorldMar 19, 2014 4:51 am PDT
If you’re a Facebook user and you want the best form of encryption to keep hackers and spies out of your posts and chats, you don’t have a ton of options now.
Facebook has gradually amped up its security protocols and encryption methods over the years. This includes its “bug bounty” program that pays outsiders to uncover security holes, as well as HTTPS encryption, which encrypts people’s communications in transit but still decrypts it at data centers before re-encrypting it.
However, end-to-end encryption, which holds promise as the best way to secure users’ posts, is not in any of Facebook’s major products by default. The technology is meant to encrypt people’s communications at their client devices so that governments and others must target the person and not Facebook’s data centers.
Facebook has been able to deploy end-to-end encryption for a long time, Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan said on Tuesday. It hasn’t rolled the technology out across its services partly due to its complexity. The company has also held back because, when end-to-end encryption is done right, it’s hard for the average person to communicate, he said.
“If you use end-to-end encryption on email, you realize how hard it can be,” Sullivan said during a talk with the press at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California. End-to-end encryption can be hard for people to use and understand because it typically requires a manual process of exchanging public keys between the sender and receiver whenever they send an email or any other type of message.
If Facebook users want that type of security, there are some third-party apps they can use to add end-to-end encryption to Facebook’s services, Sullivan said.
Facebook has tried to support end-to-end encryption as a concept, Sullivan said. “At a minimum, we want to support third-party initiatives,” he said.
One such messaging app is Pidgin, which provides end-to-end encryption and can be used to apply its encryption to chats carried out over Facebook’s Messenger app, Sullivan said.
Sullivan would not comment on any plans for Facebook to incorporate end-to-end encryption into Messenger itself.
Privacy in the spotlight
Talk of encryption—and its effectiveness—has risen over the past year due to disclosures over government surveillance, as well as a spate of cyberattacks allegedly carried out by the Syrian Electronic Army and other groups.
Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked the surveillance documents, called attention to the issue last week at the SXSW Interactive technology festival in Austin, Texas.
Snowden endorsed encryption during a panel discussion at the show. But he said the protocols currently employed by services such as Facebook, Google and Skype still leave consumers vulnerable to mass surveillance because they do not provide end-to-end encryption.
Facebook wants to be a responsible steward of its users’ private communications, according to Sullivan. “We need to make sure our systems are robust enough to have [governments] come in through the front door with the legal process, and not any other way,” he said.
Facebook’s security measures, which also include an advanced encryption technique called “perfect forward secrecy,” are likely to evolve as governments and outside groups enhance their counter-measures.
“In an Internet context,” Sullivan said, “security is in a constant state of improvement.”