Facebook users this summer may have to make a choice: Do they want extra privacy – or better artificial intelligence?
In the coming months, according to three people close to the project, the social media company plans to release an optional encrypted communications mode for its Messenger app, which is used by more than 900 million people.
The system will let users deploy so-called end-to-end encryption meant to block both authorities and Facebook from reading users’ texts. Such technology has become more widespread in the post-Edward Snowden era as the technology industry tries to assuage fears about prying eyes in both the government and Silicon Valley headquarters.
Yet Facebook plans to make the tougher encryption an opt-in, because turning it on would get in the way of some new machine learning features it is building into Messenger, sources said. In May, Google faced blowback from privacy activists after it made a similar choice for its new Allo messaging app.
Facebook’s move illustrates how technology companies are doubling down on secure messaging in the wake of Apple’s standoff with the FBI. At the same time, the companies also don’t want to get in the way of their other business objectives.
The technology industry is increasingly caught between two conflicting trends. Consumers seem to be demanding that companies share less of their data with them – but also want companies to improve their services by integrating more of their personal data.
Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple all have taken steps this year to build virtual assistants that analyze consumers’ texts, photos and other habits to help them navigate daily life. Google’s Allo app, for instance, reads all of a user’s messages and suggests an appropriate response. If Alice sends Bob a picture of her new puppy, Google might suggest Bob to reply, “OMG CUTE PUPPY!”.
At its developer conference in April, Facebook showed how it wants to bring its own smart features to Messenger. This includes ‘bots’, which offer simple, responsive services such as reading certain news stories from CNN or ordering flowers.