A Nebraska woman and her 17-year-old daughter are facing felony and misdemeanor charges related to allegedly performing an abortion after 20 weeks, which has long been illegal in the state, and concealing a fetus. Reports from the Lincoln Journal Star and Motherboard revealed this week that law enforcement collected evidence for the charges in part by soliciting data from Meta with a warrant that ordered the company to hand over records from the 17-year-old’s Messenger chat histories. While Meta was complying with a lawful court order, the company would not have been able to produce the chats had the participants been using end-to-end encryption, a feature Meta has long promised to turn on for all users by default.
Meanwhile, in a move that Meta says is totally unrelated, the social media giant announced this morning that it is testing expansions of end-to-end encrypted messaging on Messenger.
The company has been promising full-scale deployment of the privacy feature since 2016. CEO Mark Zuckerberg even committed in 2019 to implement end-to-end encryption across all of its chat apps. But the company has faced technical and political challenges that have delayed the full rollout year after year, forcing Meta to fall back on gradual, incremental steps instead. The social giant says that it is driving toward a “global rollout of default end-to-end encryption for personal messages and calls in 2023.”
For now, though, the company continues the slow march, saying that it is testing a group of new encryption-related features and initiatives. This week, Meta will expand the number of chats between certain people that automatically have end-to-end encryption turned on. This means those users won’t have to opt in to enable the protection. Similarly, the company says that it will “soon” broaden the number of users who can opt into end-to-end encryption on Instagram Direct Messenger.
Beginning this week, Meta is also testing a “secure storage” feature for end-to-end encrypted chats, so users can back up their messages in case they lose a device or get a new one and want to restore their chat history. The company says this secure backup feature will be the default for end-to-end encrypted chats on Messenger, with the option to lock the backups with a PIN or a generated code. The feature is designed so Meta won’t be able to access the backups. Users will also be able to opt out of the backups and turn the feature off.
When asked directly whether the timing of the announcement was related to revelations about the Nebraska case, Meta spokesperson Alex Dziedzan told WIRED, “This is not a response to any law enforcement requests.” He added, “We’ve had this date in the diary for months, but the short notice is because Messenger product teams have been finalizing the tests that are going live. These tests will start Thursday. We want people to hear about these tests from us before they see changes in the app.”
Dziedzan also cited a talk that Meta engineers are giving at the Crypto academic cryptography conference in Santa Barbara this weekend as a reason for the timing.
Meta said in a statement on Tuesday that it received warrants related to the Nebraska case on June 7, before the US Supreme Court released its decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson reproductive rights case. The company added that the warrants it received did not mention abortion and that they came with nondisclosure orders that have since been lifted.
For privacy advocates, though, the Nebraska case illustrates the value and stakes of deploying default end-to-end encryption.
“Having end-to-end encrypted communications by default has never been more important,” says Riana Pfefferkorn, a research scholar at the Stanford Internet Observatory. “Making it work for billions of people across multiple services is a daunting challenge, and Meta has to proceed carefully to make sure they get it right. But from the war in Ukraine to a teenage girl in Nebraska who needed abortion care, we’ve seen how strong encryption—or the lack thereof—can make a huge difference in the lives of real people.”