Whispering Over the Internet: Facebook’s Encrypted Secret Conversations

Whispering Over the Internet: Facebook’s Encrypted Secret Conversations


Since the founding of Facebook it has been innovative and revolutionary in the way we communicate with each other. The reigning king of social media has provided services for billions of people around the world. Where once communication was prohibited or impossible, Facebook provides the opportunity to interact and share ideas with likeminded or completely different individuals. The case of the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010 in the Middle East and North Africa, shows just how powerful social media can be. Facebook is reminiscent of ‘the salon’ used by men and women during the French Revolution to discuss intellectual, controversial ideas.

Much like in the salons of the French Revolution, secrecy is key. The social climate of information encryption has become a hot topic since Edward Snowden, formerly an employee of the US government in the CIA, released documents exposing the NSA as eavesdroppers and federal law breakers. The United States government has claimed their examination of private conversations both domestically and internationally is berthed from security concerns, and those who are not breaking the law or planning terrorist attacks, should have nothing to worry about. Except we are worried, and we want more secure services.

It would be foolish to consider avoiding all technological communication. In fact being a functioning member of society requires you to correspond at the very least on a telephone. Thankfully, Facebook has a response to our security and privacy issues. The Messenger team is currently creating Facebook’s new initiative ‘Secret Conversations’. According to the Secret Conversation Technical White Paper released on July 8, 2016 – Secret Conversation is a distinct message mode, included in the standard Messenger application.

Secret Conversation allows users to create a separate thread on Messenger while communicating as plainly as you would in a normal thread. However, in secret mode the conversation is encrypted on both ends, Facebook claims even they will not be able to read conversations hosted in Secret Conversation. This information can be used when discussing private information such as health issues, travel plans, security codes or banking information. Messenger’s Technical White Page states: “Secret Conversations relies upon the Signal Protocol. Messenger uses Signal Protocol’s implementation as available in the open source signal-protocol libraries for Android and iOS respectively.” Secret Conversations also incorporates new abuse-reporting features which are not present on other platforms which use the Signal Protocol.

Secret Conversation is device-to-device communication. However, once you have opened a secret conversation on messenger the device you have sent the messages from can only be viewed on that device. Some people may find this inconvenient as they like to view their message history on whatever device they may be using cellphone, tablet, computer etc. On-device encryption ensures that messages stored permanently on a particular device are only accessible while a user is authenticated to Facebook. Messenger allows users to switch accounts. “While a second user is logged in to a particular device messages of the first user should not be accessible. However, when the first user returns to the same device they should find their messages intact (Facebook TWP, July 8, 2016).” This feature is necessary in order to ensure the encryption is impenetrable. The new feature is being developed by the Messenger team in partnership with Open Whisper Systems. Open Whisper Systems is an open-source volunteer based organization that makes private communication simple. They have been endorsed by Edward Snowden the current political refugee and accused treasonous employee of the United States Government.

Communicating sensitive information online always comes with its worries. Whether you are entering your credit card information or sending private data your mind should be at ease that absolutely no one but the person you are sending it to will be able to read that particular information. Facebook, Secret Conversations and Open Whisper Systems are creating the environment online where people finally feel safe to do just that.