Last year, governments around the world threw criticism on Facebook and pressured it to stop its end to end encryption plan across its app. Many people argued that the said feature can provide coverup for criminals as well as child predators. Now, Facebook is going to roll out new features called abuse-detections and alert tools in its messaging app Messenger. The latest features may help address the criticisms thrown at them without having to weaken its apps’ protections.
Facebook publicized new Messenger features that will alert you when you receive messages that might be sent by financial scammers and potential child abusers. The said features will display warnings within the app. It comes with tips and suggestions as to how the message receivers can block the offenders.
The feature, which was initially set in motion last March for Android devices will now be made available for iOS. It utilizes machine learning communication analysis across the more than billions of Messenger users to identify which of them display a shady behavior. However, one important thing that Facebook noted is that only metadata will be the basis of the detection and not the analysis of Messenger’s content. This is done in order to prevent undermining Messenger’s end to end encryption that it provides in its feature called Secret Conversations. In addition, Facebook noted that it will eventually implement the end to end encryptions as a default feature for all Messenger chats.
According to Jay Sullivan, Facebook’s director of product management for Messenger privacy and safety, as Facebook moves to end encryption, they continue to invest in privacy-preserving tools such as the ones they will implement in order to preserve the safety of people without having to access their message content. Upgrade the security patches of your Facebook Messenger with this.
The New Features’ Mechanism is Based on Metadata Alone
The complete details of the new features are yet to be revealed by Facebook. However, according to the tech giant’s spokesperson, the detection mechanism of the new features are solely based on metadata. This means everything excluding the content of the users’ messages, which the servers of Facebook can no longer access once encrypted. Sullivan added that they can get good signals which they can develop over time using machine learning models. Other than that, Sullivan declined to add any more information regarding the new features as he said that bad actors might be able to counter its safety.
The blog publicized by Facebook showed instances of adults sending a lot of minors friend requests and messages. This is one case when their behavioral detection feature can detect abusers. In addition, Facebook will also weigh the lack of connection between two people’s social graphs. The lack of connection is a sign that they do not know each other. Facebook will also consider instances when users blocked a profile. This will serve as a clue that the blocked profile is up to something shady.
Facebook Followers Give You An Alert
For instance, once a screenshot from Facebook shows an alert where the detection feature asked a message recipient knows a possible scammer. If the recipient says no, the feature will suggest to block the sender and tell the recipient to never send money to strangers. In another instance, the feature found a profile that uses another person’s profile picture and name to impersonate a friend of the recipient. An alert will then be displayed where the impersonator’s account is displayed side by side with the real owner of the profile. It will then suggest the recipient block the fraud profile.
However, Facebook has one exception when it claimed that it does not look at the content of messages. The abuse-reporting mechanism of Messenger has a feature that sends messages to Facebook when flagged by a user. This gives another clue to Facebook regarding what bad behavior the flagged user might be up to. Still, this cannot be considered as breaching the end to end encryption. This is because the one who received the encrypted message has a choice whether he or she would share the decrypted version of the message to a third party.
Blocking is the Most Immediate Action Against Harmful Users
For now, Facebook’s new feature will only suggest users block or ignore potential abuse. The spokesperson of Facebook said that they wanted to provide Facebook and Messenger users with immediate actions. And the most immediate action that a person can take in order to avoid harm is to block bad actors. Finally, he added that they are looking to integrate reporting into the new feature.
According to Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, the new alert feature integrated into Facebook Messenger based solely on metadata is a good start. Still, he argued that the company could and should do more. Stamos, who is now leading the Stanford Internet Observatory emphasized that tech giants like Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and Snap should all monitor bad behavior signs on user devices.
Furthermore, Stamos noted that in its alerts, Facebook is emphasizing reporting instead of blocking and the reports sent by users could serve as evidence that the law enforcers could use against criminals. He noted that the law is not going to arrest a person who sent a large number of friend requests to teenage girls. But if a person actually sent a message where he requested a kid to send nudes, it can be considered as illegal behavior. That could serve as a proof for criminal behavior and get a search warrant to possibly persecute the person in question. If Facebook really wants to access the content of the communications, then the best way to achieve that without breaching the end to end encryption is to encourage the message receiver to report the conversation.
Facebook, as well as other tech companies, are facing pressure from the Congress and Trump administration. The government wanted them to build encryption mechanisms that could let law enforcement access messages and stored data. However, Facebook emphasized that its new safety features are not a response to the government’s pressure.