While protecting your privacy online has been a subject of interest for a while now, events in the news — for example, the chat history Facebook recently turned over to police — have brought it front and center. But how do you protect your privacy while staying in touch with friends and relatives? While there are a number of messaging apps that boast increased privacy features, sometimes you can’t persuade the people you want to keep in touch with to use them. What is your alternative? What, for example, if they insist on chatting with Facebook Messenger?
Well, you can start by using end-to-end encryption (E2EE) on Messenger.
Basically, end-to-end encryption means that nobody — even Facebook’s company Meta — should be able to read what is in your chat. In short, this is accomplished by each party’s account being assigned a special key; only the account with that key can unlock the message. Currently, Meta has E2EE available on its Messenger platform but only on a per-chat basis. The company has announced its intention to turn on E2EE by default soon, but in the meantime, if you’re about to embark on a Messenger conversation that you want to keep private, here’s how to turn it on. (The process is generally the same for both Android devices and iPhones.)
Begin an encrypted chat
- In your Messenger mobile app, select Chats in the bottom menu.
- Tap on the Edit icon in the upper right (it looks like a pen).
- Toggle on the lock icon in the top right.
- Select the name of the person you want to chat with. (Note: according to Meta, there are some accounts you can’t use with E2EE, such as businesses and accounts of public figures.)
If you’re already chatting with the person and decide you want to enable E2EE, you can do that as well.
- Within the conversation, tap the information (looks like an “i”) icon in the top right.
- Tap Go to secret conversation.
Vanish mode and disappearing conversations
From that information page, you can also go into Vanish mode, which will cause the conversation to vanish when you close the chat.
- In the information page, tap Vanish mode.
- Toggle Vanish mode on.
You can also decide at what time a message will vanish — anywhere from five seconds to a day. This is called a disappearing (rather than a vanishing) message. To create one:
- Tap on the name of the person you’re texting with when you’re in the encrypted conversation.
- You’ll be brought to the settings page for secret conversations. Tap on Disappearing messages.
- Tap on the time limit you want.
One thing to be aware of is that an encrypted conversation can only be between the people in that conversation and the devices they are using. If you start an encrypted conversation on one mobile device, you can’t just move to another device and continue it; you have to sign in to the Messenger app on the other device and manually add it to the conversation. (The other participants will be notified that there was a new device added.)
In addition, you can take part in encrypted chats on the web using the Messenger app on Chrome, Safari, and Firefox. (In Firefox, ironically, private mode must be disabled.)
Update August 17th, 2022, 11:10AM ET: This article was originally published on August 16th, 2022, and has been updated to add information about disappearing messages.