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Whatsapp announces encryption

by Josef Kafka

WhatsApp, one of the world’s most popular messaging services, has just announced end-to-end encryption in a move that is likely to enrage the FBI and further fan the flames of the web privacy debate.

The American government agency has recently become embroiled in a very public legal spat with Apple over the encryption on its phones. The #ApplevsFBI court case over the encryption on the San Bernadino shooter’s iPhone 5S ended recently when the FBI announced it had cracked the phone and no longer needed the company’s help. Yet the public debate about security and #privacy on the internet and your smartphone rages on. 

A political battle, not a legal one?

Many feel that the FBI simply did not need to go to court using a 200-year-old statute to try and force Apple to open the phone and that this is about a wider #cybersecurity issue. The FBI has campaigned for a TSA-style backdoor key to every major phone provider and internet server and this legal case was seen as a line in the sand. Apple did not budget. 

Now WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, has announced its own end-to-end encryption in the aftermath of the case. It could just be coincidence, but the timing is likely to incense the FBI, which is already smarting after pulling out of the public duel with one of the world’s biggest tech companies. 

Total message encryption

Chat, voice and file transfers will now boast full encryption, so virtually anybody around the world with a smartphone can now send chat and voice messages, as well as file transfers, without worrying about any government agencies or hackers intercepting the message. Whether this leads to another high profile court case, only time will tell. Of course the end user’s phone is still the weak point and it can easily be tampered with, but the actual messaging service itself should now be watertight and free from interference. 

So technically, even if the FBI does get its way in the end and insists on backdoor access to every smartphone, this will not be enough to prevent people evading their clutches. As WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, it’s hard to conceive that the world’s most popular social network hasn’t adopted, or is in the process of adopting, similar protective measures. 

WhatsApp has more than 1 billion users worldwide and is one of the biggest forces in instant messaging. It released a statement that said: "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. No one can see inside that message. Not cybercriminals. Not hackers. Not oppressive regimes. Not even us."

Companies taking the backdoor out the backdoor?

Companies locking themselves out of the messaging, file storage and other processes is becoming something of a trend and that is likely to continue in the wake of the FBI’s legal action with Apple. Apple itself is looking at building data centres and providing a totally secure iCloud, for which it simply does not have the keys. If the industry adopts this practice en masse then it will make the FBI’s job much more difficult, although it could create issues in other more tightly controlled countries and may even result in certain services being locked out altogether. 

North Korea and China are very different to the USA, so Apple and WhatsApp’s policy could get a very different reception. 

It will be interesting to see what impact this encryption has, too. WhatsApp is largely seen as a consumer tool for friends and family to connect. This extra level of security, though, could tempt companies to use it for internal communications and Amnesty International highlighted that it could become much more useful for journalists in the field, as well as political activists, who rely on encrypted messaging to ensure that they are not at risk.

"Whatsapp's roll out of the Signal Protocol, providing end to end encryption for its one billion users worldwide, is a major boost for people's ability to express themselves and communicate without fear," Amnesty Internional said in a statement. "This is a huge victory for privacy and free speech, especially for activists and journalists who depend on strong and trustworthy communications to carry out their work without putting their lives at greater risk."

The FBI could use WhatsApp

Technically encrypted messaging could even be useful for FBI agents in the field, when more sophisticated forms of communication simply aren’t available. It’s unlikely that the agency will appreciate the irony, though, as this is another tech giant that has openly defied the call for transparency and access. 

Will we now face another lawsuit between the FBI and Facebook? Only time will tell, but watch this space as the political tension is certainly cranking up.

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