Facebook is reportedly looking into analyzing the content of encrypted data without having to decrypt it. The company is recruiting artificial intelligence researchers to study the matter, according to The Information. Their research could pave the way for Facebook to target ads based on encrypted WhatsApp messages. Facebook could also use the findings to encrypt user data without affecting its ad targeting approaches.
This area of research is called "homomorphic encryption," which relies heavily on mathematics. Microsoft, Amazon and Google are also working on the approach. The aim of homomorphic encryption is to allow companies to read and analyze data while keeping it encrypted to protect information from cybersecurity dangers and to maintain privacy.
Facebook told The Information it's "too early for us to consider homomorphic encryption for WhatsApp at this time." Facebook could benefit from the tech in a number of ways. Protecting data without impacting the effectiveness of ad targeting could allow Facebook to both meet its business goals and satisfy regulators who have expressed concern about how the company handles user information. Facebook could be years away from harnessing homomorphic encryption, however.
In 2019, Facebook revealed plans to roll out end-to-end encryption across all of its messaging services: Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp. Later that year, the US, UK and Australia sent a joint letter to Facebook, urging it not to push forward with the project "without ensuring there will be no reduction in the safety of Facebook users and others, and without providing law enforcement court-authorized access to the content of communications to protect the public, particularly child users." However you slice it, encryption is a thorny issue for Facebook, whether or not it's able to analyze the data.