Facebook is allegedly seeking to develop what could be a hugely controversial method of mining useful advertising data from encrypted WhatsApp messages.

According to a report in The Information, Facebook is recruiting artificial intelligence researchers (including a key hire from Microsoft) in order to learn how to analyse the content of encrypted messages without having to decrypt them.

This research could allow Facebook to target adverts based on encrypted WhatsApp messages, or to encrypt the data it collects on billions of users without hurting its ad-targeting capabilities, outside experts reportedly said.

Encrypted messages

But how on earth does Facebook expect to glean actionable intelligence from encrypted messages, without decrypting the message first?

Well the social network apparently confirmed to The Information that it is researching what is called ‘homomorphic encryption’.

And to make matters worse, Facebook is reportedly not the only tech firm researching this field, as others including Microsoft, Amazon and Google are also working on the approach.

The good news is that this development is not exactly with us yet (as far as we are aware).

Facebook told The Information it is “too early for us to consider homomorphic encryption for WhatsApp at this time.”

This is the Facebook which has previously defended its default use of end-to-end encryption for people’s messages.

Indeed, in October 2019 CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended his decision to encrypt the company’s messaging services, after an open letter protesting the move was signed by the UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, US Attorney General Bill Barr, acting US Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, and Australian Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton.

Homomorphic encryption

The central thrust of homomorphic encryption, which was proposed as far back as 1978, is to allow companies to read and analyse data while keeping it encrypted to protect the data from cybersecurity threats and to maintain privacy.

This of course could potentially open a huge can of worms for Facebook, considering its track record with safeguarding user privacy, and is sure to attract scrutiny from regulatory watchdogs.

However, the development of homomorphic encryption is also likely to be of key interest to law enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world, who have long railed against technology companies permitting the encryption of potentially valuable data belonging to criminals and/or terrorists.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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