WhatsApp Just Provided End-to-End Encryption to Its One Billion Users

April 6, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

WhatsApp icon on iphone
Photo credit: Jan Persiel/flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Encryption is center-stage in the battle between governments and tech companies.

WhatsApp, the world’s most popular cross-platform mobile messaging app and owned by Facebook, has added end-to-end encryption to all of its messages — meaning that the company can’t hand over any information to governments, even if it wanted to.

What fueled WhatsApp’s decision to do this? If you were not aware, over the past six weeks, Apple has been in a battle with the FBI over a federal court order to unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino, California mass shooters. Apple refused, after which investigators eventually hacked into the iPhone with the help of a third party. However, Apple’s refusal started a debate over privacy and security in the digital age, sparking the question: Which do you value more — privacy or security?

Now, WhatsApp has decided to take a major stand against both law enforcement, cybercriminals, and hackers. The latest version of the app uses security technology and encryption, ensuring that messages can’t be intercepted as they travel between devices, and that only a message’s sender and recipient can read it.

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“The idea is simple: when you send a message, the only person who can read it is the person or group chat that you send that message to,” WhatsApp said in a blog post on Tuesday (April 5). “No one can see inside that message. Not cybercriminals. Not hackers. Not oppressive regimes. Not even us.”

This means that no matter who uses the latest version of the app — and the app is installed on roughly a billion devices — the service will encrypt all messages, phone calls, photos, and videos. And this works for any phone that runs the app.

With end-to-end encryption in place, not even WhatsApp’s employees can read the data that’s sent across its network. In other words, WhatsApp has no way of complying with a court order that demands access to the content of any messages, calls, photos, or videos. However, WhatsApp can still access some important data, such as the behavior of its users.

To some, this raises the question about whether a tech company should have the power to lock the government out of its products, especially when those products are used by criminal suspects to communicate.

“Building secure products actually makes for a safer world, [though] many people in law enforcement may not agree with that,” Brian Acton, co-founder of WhatsApp, told Wired. With encryption, Acton explained, anyone can conduct business or talk to a doctor without worrying about eavesdroppers. With encryption, he said, you can even be a whistleblower and not worry.

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According to Wired, many people both inside and out of the government will definitely take issue with the company’s move. In late 2014, WhatsApp encrypted a portion of its network, and since then, its service has apparently been used to conduct criminal acts, including the terrorist attacks on Paris last year.

“The government doesn’t want to stop encryption,” Joseph DeMarco, a former federal prosecutor who specializes in cybercrime, said to Wired. “But the question is: what do you do when a company creates an encryption system that makes it impossible for court-authorized search warrants to be executed? What is the reasonable level of assistance you should ask from that company?”

However, governments are not powerless. If officials can access a user’s device, they can simply open the app and see the user’s messages.

What do you think? Will there ever be a balance between privacy and security, or will the two forever be butting heads?

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