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Privacy Fears Raised Over Facebook Messaging Apps Integration

Privacy Concerns Raised Over Facebook's Reported Plans to Merge FB Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram

Facebook is apparently working on -- and has not denied -- integrating the underlying structures of its three messaging services: Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram. The purpose is to allow users on one service to communicate seamlessly with users on the others; something that is currently not possible.

The intention is to provide end-to-end encryption, maintaining content privacy, common across all apps -- but the danger is that this can only weaken the privacy currently afforded by WhatsApp. The idea has apparently been floated by Mark Zuckerberg throughout 2018, and is believed to be targeted for the end of 2019 or early 2020.

Facebook acquired Instagram for approximately $1 billion in 2012, and WhatsApp for around $19.3 billion in 2014. At the time, Zuckerberg promised to leave the apps alone as separate entities from Facebook. In 2016, following pressure from Europe's Article 29 Working Party (comprising European nation's individual privacy regulators, Facebook stopped processing WhatsApp data for ad serving. The Irish regulator announced, "It was confirmed that, for the moment, Facebook Ireland is not proceeding to process European user data from WhatsApp for the purposes of serving ads and enhancing the Facebook service."

However, continuing privacy concerns over Facebook have clearly upset the founders of Instagram and WhatsApp. It is not known to what extent Facebook's early plans to merge the systems were part of this, but the co-founders of both Instagram and WhatsApp have all left Facebook. WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton was the first to leave in late 2017. In February 2018 he donated $50 million to the rival Signal Foundation. By March 2018 he had added his name to the Twitter #deletefacebook hashtag. That same month his WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum also announced his departure, although he stayed on until the end of 2018 possibly to protect his 'rest and vest' stock earnings (thought to be in the region of $450 million in stock).

Instagram's founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, left the company in September 2018

The merging of the messengers makes commercial sense for Facebook. It will make it easier for users to communicate entirely within Facebook rather than having to rely on a perhaps different common service. This will increase the number of hours spent within Facebook. But it will likely increase the amount of advertising Facebook can sell based on its users' habits. This also makes commercial sense. Facebook's year-on-year revenue growth has been in decline since mid-2016 (peaking at just under 60%). By the third quarter of 2018, it had dropped to just over 30%.

The concern now is that rather than raising the privacy of Messenger and Instagram to that of WhatsApp, privacy will be lowered to the lowest common denominator. For example, use of Instagram and Messenger both require users to provide their true identities, while WhatsApp currently requires only a phone number at sign up. The promise of end-to-end encryption will protect the content from eaves-droppers -- including Facebook. But the merging of metadata, knowing who is communicating with whom and when, will increase the ability of Facebook's algorithms to target advertising, and likely increase its revenue.

Academics and politicians have voiced concern over this move. In a thread on Twitter, Matthew Green (assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University), asked, "The real question is: does this mean that the encryption on all three services will get upgraded to the quality of WhatsApp? Or will WhatsApp's encryption be downgraded to allow compatibility?" 

He concluded, "Anyway, the summary is: this move could be potentially 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."

Sen Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) issued a statement, "When it comes to privacy, we can no longer give Facebook the benefit of the doubt," said Senator Markey. "We have heard a lot from Facebook about how it is committed to changing course and protecting its users' information, but the company repeatedly has ignored its promises. Now that Facebook plans to integrate its messaging services, we need more than mere assurances from the company that this move will not come at the expense of users' data privacy and security. We cannot allow platform integration to become privacy disintegration."

California Representative Ro Khanna added his voice on Twitter. "This is why there should have been far more scrutiny during Facebook's acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp which now clearly seem like horizontal mergers that should have triggered antitrust scrutiny."

Related: Facebook's Privacy Lapses May Result in Record Fine 

Related: FTC to Probe Facebook Over Privacy Practices 

Related: Facebook's Growing Privacy Concern 

Related: Is Facebook Out of Control? Investigations and Complaints Are Rising

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Kevin Townsend is a Senior Contributor at SecurityWeek. He has been writing about high tech issues since before the birth of Microsoft. For the last 15 years he has specialized in information security; and has had many thousands of articles published in dozens of different magazines – from The Times and the Financial Times to current and long-gone computer magazines.