Meta might not be a bastion of digital privacy (and very well may be an enemy of it), but the times might be a-changin’. The company announced on Thursday, Aug. 11 they are testing end-to-end encryption (E2EE) for Facebook Messenger as the default, meaning all Messenger users would have their chats protected from spying eyes unless they choose not to. While these changes aren’t expected to arrive for all users for a while, there are ways to enable E2EE in Messenger right now.
How end-to-end encryption works
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With typical messaging, texts are stored openly on your device, the device you send them to, and the server of the messaging platform (i.e. Facebook Messenger itself). Those messages can be read by anyone with access to the devices where those messages are stored, including the hosts of the messaging platform. That makes it easy for a company like Meta to hand over your messages to an authority, should such a request come through.
With end-to-end encryption, however, messages aren’t sent and stored in plain text, but rather they’re “scrambled.” If you were to try to read an encrypted message, it would appear as an unrecognizable jumble of characters, making it useless to intercept.
To unscramble the message, you need a “key.” For messaging purposes, that key is either your device or the recipient’s device. Those two devices are the only devices capable of unscrambling your particular conversation—even though Meta is facilitating the passage of these messages, it has no way to unscramble the messages for itself or anyone who comes asking for them.
Meta is testing E2EE as the default messaging protocol for all conversations in Messenger, which would offer these benefits to all users out of the box. However, tests are in their initial stages at this point, with Meta reportedly including only a couple hundred users at first. Statistically speaking, you’re not in that test group, so you’ll need to use Messenger’s hidden E2EE feature to take advantage of the security benefits.
How to enable end-to-end encryption in Facebook Messenger
This hidden feature is called “secret conversation,” and it’s fairly straightforward to use (albeit a bit buried). To start, open a chat you’d like E2EE for, then tap the person’s name at the top of the display. Under “More actions,” tap “Go to secret conversation,” and Messenger will instantly open up a new E2EE chat, complete with a unique black and white theme to indicate that it isn’t a normal Messenger chat.
The catch is that the other user needs to be using a device and Messenger app that is compatible with secret conversations and E2EE. If they aren’t, you’ll get an error message when you try to send anything in a secret conversation. You also can’t use secret conversations with groups—keep that in mind before you start sharing any sensitive information with your multi-party chats. You won’t be able to send GIFs, make audio or video calls, or send payments in secret conversations either, which limit the feature somewhat.
Still, for E2EE purposes, secret conversations get the job done: Just keep in mind you’ll see two chats in your app for each contact you started a secret conversation with. Make sure you tap on the thread with the lock icon, not the normal conversation, if you want your messages protected. That said, Messenger makes it pretty clear when secret conversation is enabled, so if you don’t see any reference to it in your chat, assume E2EE isn’t active.
Other ways to use E2EE on Facebook
Secret conversation isn’t your only E2EE option for Messenger, either: There’s also something called vanish mode. Meta, then Facebook, introduced it in November of 2020, advertising it as a Snapchat-like messaging experience: Texts disappear after closing out of the chat, and the app tattles on anyone who takes a screenshot of the thread. What the company didn’t stress, however, was that vanish mode chats are entirely end-to-end encrypted.
To use vanish mode, all you need to do is swipe up from the bottom of one of your Messenger chats. As you do, you’ll see “Swipe up to turn on vanish mode,” along with a progress ring showing you how much more you need to pull up to enable the feature. Once the ring is filled, let go: The chat will then switch into vanish mode, encrypting all messages and deleting them on your exit. You can also enable or disable vanish mode from a chat’s settings: Scroll to the bottom of the page, tap “Vanish mode,” then toggle the slider.
Meta is actually removing vanish mode from Messenger once it rolls out E2EE as a default, but you’ll still be able to enable a similar feature for disappearing messages. The company is keeping Instagram’s version of vanish mode, but it isn’t E2EE, so it isn’t nearly as secure.