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Meta testing expanded encryption features amid renewed scrutiny of messaging data

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By Clare Duffy, CNN Business

Meta on Thursday said it is testing expanded encryption features for Messenger and Instagram, days after the company came under scrutiny for providing messages to police in an abortion-related case.

Facebook’s parent company said it plans to test making chats end-to-end encrypted by default for some Messenger users and to make fully encrypted calls on the platform. It’s also planning to expand tests of end-to-end encrypted messages and calls on Instagram.

Meta said it’s also testing a “secure storage” option for end-to-end encrypted conversations, which have been stored only on users’ devices. The new storage service, which Meta says will become the default for storing encrypted conversations on Messenger, would allow users to back up their conversations with Facebook in case they lose their devices. The company said that it “won’t have access to your messages” in secure storage. Meta says it is only able to see encrypted messages in live conversations or in secure storage if users report them, for example, with harassment concerns.

The company has for years been working to expand and improve end-to-end encryption on its platforms, with the promise of ensuring that messages are only viewable by members of the conversation and not accessible by the company. These moves have sometimes received pushback from government officials who worry about the impact on law enforcement.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Meta, already enables end-to-end encryption by default. Messenger mobile app users can currently opt-in to end-to-end encryption in conversations. The company has previously pledged to make end-to-end encryption the default for all messages and calls on its platforms globally in 2023, a promise it reiterated Thursday.

The latest announcement comes following backlash against Facebook over news this week that a Nebraska mother and her teenage daughter are facing multiple charges in an abortion-related case that involved law enforcement obtaining the pair’s Facebook messages, which were not encrypted. The messages, which were contained in court filings reviewed by CNN Business and are now being used to support law enforcement’s case, appear to reference abortion pills and burning “the evidence.”

Facebook, in a response to the coverage, noted that the case began prior to the Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and that the search warrant it received did not mention abortion but rather “the alleged illegal burning and burial of a stillborn infant.”

Still, the situation is one that many digital privacy experts have warned of, especially following Roe’s demise: that law enforcement in some states could obtain people’s personal information, such as messages, search histories and location data, from tech companies to enforce laws prohibiting abortion. Experts have encouraged people to switch to end-to-end encrypted messaging platforms for sensitive conversations, such as those about abortions.

Meta spokesperson Andy Stone told CNN Business that Thursday’s encryption announcement has been in the works and is unrelated to news of the Nebraska case.

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