Written by By Carma Hassan, CNN
From pushing users to give up their passwords and setting snooping advocates up for a battle, social media has long been at the forefront of data collection and misuse — but that doesn’t appear to be stopping Facebook from refining and even adding functions to its technology.
Last week, it emerged that the tech giant is working on a new messaging system that will be designed to be “too sensitive for the government to access.”
However, privacy advocates are warning that the company has delayed introducing the new functionality, claiming it would be “too risky” and increase child safety concerns.
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Despite saying it plans to roll out the new feature, Facebook said in a statement provided to CNNMoney that it is still “developing the features.”
“The future of Messenger will include more functions for parents to manage their children’s messaging and who can reach them and it will evolve over time,” the statement read.
A Facebook spokesperson pointed CNNMoney to a recent blog post by executive Jonathan Heiliger, in which he outlined some of the changes that will be introduced.
Heiliger said that conversations between children and their parents would be accessible by the same screen where the parents receive text messages.
“This means parents will be able to see that their child has sent and received messages on Messenger, and they will be able to limit who their children can message and talk to,” Heiliger wrote.
Based on its own research, Heiliger said there are concerns around how individuals can be tracked through the messaging app, where people can disclose certain details, and what content they may send to whom.
He also told CNNMoney that the upcoming system would utilize encryption to “protect the security of a person’s correspondence, while also not compromising the security of messages.”
A group of concerned cyber security experts had urged Facebook to take a hard look at introducing “two-factor authentication,” otherwise known as ‘two-step verification,” to its messaging service.
The feature — designed to keep certain people from accessing an account without having to login in the first place — would be set up for parents as well. But they claim that Facebook has claimed that adoption of the technology is not cost-effective.
Rana el Kaliouby, founder of the Wellesley, Massachusetts-based research center Affectiva, and a former colleague of the social media giant’s own digital security specialist warned that the feature was effectively a back door for law enforcement to access messages.
“I can think of many reasons why allowing law enforcement to have access to a child’s Messenger account would be illegal,” el Kaliouby told CNNMoney.
While users can set up other mechanisms such as certificates, blocking all child-aimed webmail accounts, or geolocation sharing, she said, the Messenger service was much more targeted at specific groups such as children, and an attempt to use them as evidence against their parents.
“There is a reason that Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has classified Messenger as a ‘lawful intercept,'” el Kaliouby continued. “This is because it is capable of intercepting, decrypting, and storing private chats between a user and a third party.”
EFF’s expert on digital surveillance, Laura Moy, agreed.
“Facebook’s request that the mechanism simply be ‘2-step verification’ is a fiction and completely self-serving,” Moy told CNNMoney.
In a bid to address fears about adhering to legal directives, Facebook’s Heiliger also warned that users shouldn’t expect increased access to private chat servers.
“We also ask a lot of our customers, and anything we’re not happy with, we work hard to fix,” he wrote.
El Kaliouby said her research has shown that while it’s easier to block children’s webcams and phones, it’s far more difficult to block apps and devices.
“It could be that WhatsApp and Telegram don’t have child-targeted software,” she said.
El Kaliouby said Facebook needed to stop cherry-picking what information to make public.
“It would make sense to make encryption mandatory,” she said. “It is the most effective way to protect against law enforcement being able to intercept and read messages.
“I don’t have to flip through a bunch of permissions settings to check whether I’m sharing anything. I just want to use Messenger on my phone without that red flag next to my inbox,” she continued.