Facebook – the social media platform where users happily post the most intimate of details of their lives – is promising complete discretion with its Messenger app. Those who fear juicy gossip being seen by prying eyes can opt to have their words self-destruct without a trace.
Facebook is testing an end-to-end encryption feature called Secret Conversations in its messaging service, creating a hybrid of WhatsApp’s immediacy and Snapchat’s ephemerality. Currently available on a “limited basis”, Secret Conversations will become more widely available later on this summer.
“We’ve heard from you that there are times when you want additional safeguards — perhaps when discussing private information like an illness or a health issue with trusted friends and family, or sending financial information to an accountant,” wrote Facebook in a blog post announcing the update.
“To enable you to do this, we’re starting to test the ability to create one-to-one secret conversations that will be end-to-end encrypted and which can only be read on one device of the person you’re communicating with.”
This means even Facebook will be unable to read its users’ messages, let alone snooping younger brothers and so-called best friends, and it is a development that follows a trend GDR saw emerging early last year.
A February 2016 study from researchers at King’s College London found that the dark web has a number of multi-layered “onion” categories, ranging from bot nets and bitcoin services to hoaxes and puzzle games, that deliberately seek out anonymity. Professor Alan Woodward of the University of Surrey has estimated that, disappointingly for conspiracy theorists, around half of the sites on the dark web are for completely legal uses.
Far from the noisy self-promotion of Likes and Retweets, there is a silent movement of people around the world who wish to use the internet anonymously and privately, without losing their voice. For some, this means staying out of sight of Google’s spiders in order to speak freely. For others, it extends to their smartphones.
Secret was an app that became a particular talking point within Silicon Valley. It allowed residents to anonymously post the gossip, rumour and scandal swirling around the corridors of its tech companies. Secret was designed so that anyone could post a confession without fear of their identity ever being exposed. Other users would only know whether the poster was, or was not, someone they knew, and their general location. Secrets ranged from the benign (“I’m going to propose”) to the sensational (“I may have made a $100 million mistake.”)
Detractors of Secret likened its posts to graffiti on toilet walls. As journalist Mark Hooper warns in his article “Nameless and Shameless” for Viewpoint magazine: “It’s hard to distinguish the voice of the righteous on a mission from the internet bully.” Eventually, in fact, the app was shut down in August 2015, when it was rumoured to be worth $100m, as its founder became disillusioned by its unintended use for trolling.
Anonymity is serving a purpose beyond just salaciousness though. For example, new mothers, conscious of their baby’s health but too embarrassed to ask their GP for help, can turn to First Opinion. The app connects users to a doctor without revealing the parent’s identity or asking for any personal information. A small subscription fee allows the user to direct as many questions as they wish to the same doctor, who can help provide them with advice and peace of mind.
As concerns over online privacy abound, being able to use the internet without having to disclose personal details is attractive to many.
“We have a right to privacy,” stated Edward Snowden at a TED conference. “People should be able to pick up the phone and call their family… without wondering about how these events are going to look to an agent of the government.”
Putting a glossier spin on the situation, French luxury brand Céline’s creative director Phoebe Philo has said: “The chicest thing is when you don’t exist on Google. God, I would love to be that person!”
Though they may not echo through algorithms and servers, the opinions and conversations of the anonymous can speak volumes. An ear should be kept to the ground to hear what the disenfranchised have to say. It could resonate far more than a Like.