The implications of Facebook’s recent efforts to allow users to encrypt their messages or hide their origin from authorities could be significant to those people currently living in oppressive regimes where the social media platform is currently banned.
This week Facebook announced that it had become the first major technology company to offer users the ability to receive encrypted email updates, with the roll-out of new feature that uses the popular PGP email encryption standard.
It follows the introduction last autumn of a direct method for users of the anonymizing software Tor to access Facebook. This service bounces users’ connections though encrypted hoops around the Internet, making it harder for anyone spying on that traffic to trace their origin.
The new PGP feature will affect the standard account maintenance emails that Facebook currently sends, which alert users to new messages, password changes or other account notifications. Users who want to receive those emails in encrypted form can notify Facebook and add OpenPGP public keys to their profile. Facebook will then ensure that any emails it sends out will be encrypted.
The system that Facebook is using is seen as the industry’s gold standard – even the whistle-blower Edward Snowden described it as one that security services have struggled to crack. By combining this encryption service with Tor, users will now be able to use the network while keeping their identity secret.
While the Arab Spring became known as the Twitter revolution Facebook has played a less active role in political uprising, potentially because of its requirement for people to use their real name on the site. Now, it seems that Facebook is moving towards creating tools to help users in those countries where it is restricted or banned access and maintain their privacy on the site (which could also have the happy coincidence of boosting its engaged user base).
China is the most famous of a number of regimes that have blocked or heavily monitor Facebook and other US platforms, including Twitter and Google, in favour of state-approved (and censored) platforms such as Sina Weibo. However, people in these countries are finding ways around this. A 2014 Global Web Index report shows that the heaviest users of Proxys and VPNs (Virtual Private Networks), which make tracking online activity more difficult, were from countries such as China, India, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia where there is lower freedom of press.
Facebook’s latest move contributes to making the job of repressing speech and bringing retribution to those who try to speak out against oppressive regimes more difficult.