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IDG News Service - Facebook started encrypting the connections of its North American users by default last week as part of a plan to roll out always-on HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) to its entire global user base.
For the past several years, security experts and privacy advocates have called on Facebook to enable always-on HTTPS by default because the feature prevents account hijacking attacks over insecure networks and also stops the governments of some countries from spying on the Facebook activities of their residents.
Despite the feature's security benefits, Facebook announced the start of its HTTPS rollout in a post on its Developer Blog last week, and not through its security page or its newsroom.
"As announced last year, we are moving to HTTPS for all users," Facebook platform engineer Shireesh Asthana said Thursday in a blog post that also described many other platform changes and bug fixes relevant to developers. "This week, we're starting to roll out HTTPS for all North America users and will be soon rolling out to the rest of the world."
It's not clear when exactly the rollout for the rest of the world will start. "We have no dates to provide at this time, but we will be continuing with a global rollout in the near future," said Facebook spokesman Fred Wolens Tuesday via email.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights organizations, welcomed the move via Twitter on Monday describing it as a "huge step forward for encrypting the web."
The EFF has long been a proponent of always-on HTTPS adoption. In collaboration with the Tor Project, creator of the Tor anonymizing network and software, the EFF maintains a browser extension called HTTP Everywhere that forces always-on HTTPS connections by default on websites that only support the feature on an opt-in basis. Twitter, Gmail and other Google services have HTTPS already turned on by default.
Facebook launched always-on HTTPS as an opt-in feature for users in January 2011. However, the initial implementation was lacking because whenever users launched a third-party application that didn't support HTTPS on the website, the entire Facebook connection was switched back to HTTP.
In order to address this problem, in May 2011 Facebook asked all platform application developers to acquire SSL certificates and make their apps HTTPS-compatible by Oct. 1 that same year.
"It is far from a simple task to build out this capability for the more than a billion people that use the site and retain the stability and speed we expect, but we are making progress daily towards this end," Wolens said. "We have already deployed significant performance enhancements to our load balancing infrastructure to mitigate most of the impact of moving to HTTPS, and will be continuing this work as we deploy this feature. In the meantime, we have been working with developers to ensure that their third-party applications are transitioned to HTTPS, and most have already completed this process."
Ivan Ristic, director of engineering at security firm Qualys, a company that monitors the HTTPS implementations on the world's most popular websites through a project called SSL Pulse, believes that it was harder for Facebook to implement this feature given its ecosystem of millions of third-party apps and websites that integrate with its platform.