Facebook Reportedly Researching Ways to Use Encrypted WhatsApp Messages for Targeted Advertisements
Facebook is researching ways to analyze encrypted data, such as WhatsApp messages, without actually decrypting the information, according to a new report from The Information.
The report cites that Facebook has confirmed it is building a team of artificial intelligence researchers to "study ways of analyzing encrypted data without decrypting it." While it is still early in development, the research could enable Facebook to use users' encrypted WhatsApp messages and then utilize that information for targeted advertising.
This specific field of research is called "homomorphic encryption," which is hoped to allow companies to read information from encrypted sets of data while also preserving privacy to protect against cybersecurity threats. Facebook has advertised several related job roles on its website, noting that it wants to work on privacy-preserving technologies while "simultaneously expanding the efficiency of Facebook's market-leading advertising systems."
The company continues to recruit researchers with backgrounds in privacy-related technologies including homomorphic encryption, secure computation and data anonymization, according to job advertisements on its website. The technologies are aimed at preserving privacy while "simultaneously expanding the efficiency of Facebook's market-leading advertising systems."
Facebook has famously been the subject of scrutiny from lawmakers and members of the public over its privacy practices. The Information believes that homomorphic encryption could be Facebook's response to growing concerns over user privacy and its relation to the platform's business model of running ads.
For Facebook, homomorphic encryption could offer a way to continue to make money from ads that are targeted based on what it knows about individual users while also answering calls from lawmakers to take privacy more seriously and prevent the misuse or breach of its data. And it could aid the company's effort to make money from WhatsApp, whose messages are encrypted, meaning Facebook can't use them to target ads.
Facebook has considered a workaround to target ads to WhatsApp users in the meantime, but homomorphic encryption could allow Facebook to analyze the data without actually reading it or sharing it directly with advertisers.
A Facebook spokesperson told The Information that it is "too early for us to consider homomorphic encryption for WhatsApp at this time." The timing of Facebook's apparent ramp-up of research into new ways to target ads to users through their WhatsApp messages comes not long after Apple's rollout of ATT or App Tracking Transparency.
ATT is a framework on iOS 14.5 and later that requires that all apps to ask for user's consent before tracking them across other apps and websites. Facebook had been a vocal critic of the framework in the weeks leading up to its official launch; however, after its rollout, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it has had little impact on his company's performance so far.
Update: Will Cathcart, head of WhatsApp, has tweeted in response to The Information's report that WhatsApp is not exploring the use of homomorphic encryption. Cathcart states that there should be skepticism of "technical claims that apps like ours could see messages in "good" cases only."