Facebook says it is rolling out an experimental new feature that increases access to encryption technology for its users.
A new setting on the social networking site allows users to encrypt emails between them and Facebook, such as messages for resetting passwords. Facebook will also allow users to share their public encryption keys right along with all their other contact info on their profiles.
Those keys can be used to send a scrambled message that only a recipient can read. It’s a highly secure form of communication, and one rarely used by the general public.
“Facebook’s move means that there is a much broader audience of people who are thinking about end-to-end encryption,” says Heather West of the internet security firm CloudFlare. Putting encryption keys on Facebook profiles can bring them into the mainstream, she says.
The increased use of encryption by tech companies is fueling a debate, with tech companies on one side and law enforcement on another. Deputy Assistant Attorney General David Bitkower, speaking at a public forum in May, said encryption could shut out law enforcement even if agencies obtain a search warrant.
“That warrant, effectively, is no better than a piece of paper,” Bitkower said, “because the information cannot be accessed without the permission of the ultimate end user or end possessor.”
Many in Silicon Valley aren’t swayed. Tim Lordan, who heads the nonpartisan, nonprofit Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee, says the use of encryption is growing.
“A lot of engineers and companies in Silicon Valley feel like it is the only way that they can protect their customers from the NSA and from would-be hackers,” Lordan says, adding that while Facebook’s latest move is modest, it is symbolically important in the context of the broader encryption debate.