The company already encrypts WhatsApp messages from end-to-end -- meaning only the sender and recipient can read the message -- and is working to extend the technology to other apps in its family, including Messenger and Instagram. Facebook says it is intent on introducing the service without granting oversight to law enforcement agencies.
"We strongly oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere," a Facebook spokesperson said.
Zuckerberg said users had been clamoring for encryption, adding that patterns of behavior and connections between accounts could be used to detect illicit behavior even if authorities could not see data in private messages. During a livestreamed question and answer session with employees, Zuckerberg said
Facebook would continue to work with authorities to strike a balance between privacy concerns and fighting crimes such as child exploitation and terrorism.
"Having the availability to look at the content is a useful signal, and when you lose that you are fighting that battle with at least a hand tied behind your back and you hope there is a lot of good stuff you can do with your other hand," Zuckerberg said.
But he added that encryption had many positive benefits such as protection for journalists and political protesters.
"These technologies protect billions of communications every day, from the sensitive correspondence of victims of domestic violence to businesses' financial records to our private medical information," said Hannah Quay-de la Vallee, senior technologist at the Washington-based nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology.
Surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden also criticized the US request to Facebook.
"The government is demanding backdoor access to the private communications of 1.5 billion people using WhatsApp," Snowden tweeted.
"If Facebook agrees, it may be the largest overnight violation of privacy in history.
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