Facebook Tests 'Secret Conversations', Self-Destructing Messages

A new, more secure option in Messenger will allow for so-called "secret conversations" between individuals; these interactions can self-destruct on a timer if desired.

Facebook keeps on developing new features for its fast-growing Messenger platform, lending additional credibility to the idea that messaging apps are the way of the future in Internet protocol communications.

Facebook bought the WhatsApp Messenger two years ago for $19 billion to replace its chat feature on individual home pages, and the team has been impressive with the continual development that it has produced. The WhatsApp branding is fading, but the functionality continues to evolve at a high rate.

Messenger is a cross-platform mobile messaging app that allows users to exchange messages without having to pay separately for SMS (Simple Messaging Service). Apps built on the platform install the Messenger service directly into the existing ecosystem of iOS and Android apps.

In addition to basic messaging, iPhone, Android and BlackBerry WhatsApp Messenger users can send each other unlimited images, video and audio media messages.

One New Feature After Another

Since the acquisition in April 2014, Messenger product head David Marcus and his group have introduced group calling, chatbots, video exchange and payment functions.

On July 8, the social network revealed that it is testing in small groups and will soon deploy widely an encrypted and more secure option in Messenger that will allow for so-called "secret conversations" between individuals. These interactions can self-destruct on a timer (pictured; right click on image to see larger version) if desired by either of the two parties. The specified messages will be so private that not even highly credentialed folks at Facebook will be able to snoop in on them.

Messenger uses high-end secure communications channels (similar to banking and shopping Websites) and end-to-end encryption in addition to Facebook's own tools to block spam and malware.

"Starting a secret conversation with someone is optional," Facebook said in the company's media blog. "That's because many people want Messenger to work when you switch between devices, such as a tablet, desktop computer or phone.

"Secret conversations can only be read on one device, and we recognize that experience may not be right for everyone. It's also important to note that in secret conversations we don’t currently support rich content like GIFs and videos, making payments, or other popular Messenger features."

Open-Source Signal Protocol at the Heart of It

To do all this, Facebook is using the open-source Signal Protocol, developed by Open Whisper Systems, whose work, interestingly, has been endorsed by Edward Snowden, among others. You can go here (PDF format) to view a whitepaper-like technical explanation of how the feature works.

The private conversations option, which no other social network has at this time, can be a very useful one on a daily basis for many of Facebook's 1.7 billion regular users. For example, people discussing personal finances, illnesses, law-enforcement or court-related topics, family issues or any other personal concern would certainly want to consider using it.

Facebook said it will make the option available outside the test group later this summer.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 15 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...