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Facebook to link Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp

Facebook outlines new data security plan
  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg presented a new "vision" for how the social networking giant will protect members' privacy
  • Cornerstones of this approach will be to better encrypt data and give users more control over who can contact them
  • Facebook will also integrate its Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp services so people can communicate more easily across the platforms

San Francisco - Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday laid out a new "privacy-focused" vision for social networking.

He promised to transform Facebook from a company known for devouring the personal information shared by its users to one that gives people more ways to communicate in truly private fashion, with their intimate thoughts and pictures shielded by encryption in ways that Facebook itself can't read.

Zuckerberg presented his vision in a Facebook post, following a rocky two-year period in which the company has weathered a series of revelations about its leaky privacy controls. That included the sharing of personal information from as many as 87 million users with a political data-mining firm that worked for the 2016 Trump campaign.

"I understand that many people don't think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform -- because frankly we don't currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services, and we've historically focused on tools for more open sharing," Zuckerberg wrote. "But we've repeatedly shown that we can evolve to build the services that people really want, including in private messaging and stories."

Since the 2016 election, Facebook has also taken flak for the way Russian agents used its service to target U.S. voters with divisive messages and for being a conduit for political misinformation and hoaxes.

Linking Facebook's apps

As part of his effort to make amends, Zuckerberg plans to stitch together its Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram messaging services so users will be able to contact each other across all of the apps. Earlier this year, the company revealed plans to run those three apps on the same underlying platform.

Zuckerberg said that all of these apps would be encrypted so no one could see the contents of the messages except for the sender and recipients. WhatsApp already has that security feature, but Facebook's other messaging apps don't.

Apps share sensitive personal data with Facebook, WSJ reports

Zuckerberg, who previously likened Facebook to a "town square," compared the new system to being in a living room behind a closed front door, without having to worry about anyone eavesdropping. Meanwhile, Facebook and the Instagram photo app would still operate more like a town square where people can openly share whatever they want.

"I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won't stick around forever," he said in his post.

Flimsy protections?

On Wall Street, some stock analysts think Facebook is moving in the right direction.

"Zuckerberg and Facebook are trying to build a platform that caters towards more privacy and data security which is a major concern for consumers worldwide," said Dan Ives, managing director of equity research at Wedbush Securities, in an email. "This is a hot-button issue not just for Facebook but the rest of the tech world, and it's a big step forward to the next evolution of messaging."

But privacy advocates doubt that Facebook is changing its data-collecting ways.

"This does nothing to address the ad targeting and information collection about individuals," said Jen King, director of consumer privacy at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society. "It's great for your relationship with other people. It doesn't do anything for your relationship with Facebook itself."

What's more, the typical user won't be able to tell if their communication is truly encrypted.

"There's no real way for average consumers to check that. Security researchers could, but the average consumer can't," said Christine Bannan, consumer protection counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Bannan suspects the emphasis on privacy is meant to take attention away from the fact that three widely used communications apps will essentially merge, with major implications for users' data privacy.

"It seems like they want to be the sole messaging app of the United States, like WeChat is in China, so what this says to me is that they know that regulators are taking a closer look at them and they're trying to make the argument that this [single] messaging app is good for consumers," Bannan added.

Report: Facebook has been lobbying against data privacy laws

Creating more ways for Facebook's more than 2 billion users to keep things private could undermine the company's business model, which depends on the ability to learn about the things people like and then sell ads tied to those interests.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Zuckerberg said he isn't currently worried about denting Facebook's profits with the increased emphasis on privacy.

In fact, private and encrypted messaging would allow Facebook to move into other ways of making money, such as by enabling financial transfer or purchasing via Messenger—something Wall Street has encouraged the social network to do. 

If Facebook moves that way, it could even compete with financial apps like Venmo, said CNET Senior Producer Dan Patterson.

CBS News' Irina Ivanova contributed reporting.

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