WhatsApp to let users encrypt chat history backups

15 Oct 2021

Image: © tashatuvango/Stock.adobe.com

WhatsApp is claiming to be the first major messaging app to allow encrypted backups in the cloud.

WhatsApp is increasing its privacy and security features, giving users the option to encrypt their chat history backup in the iCloud or Google Drive.

Although the Facebook-owned messaging platform has end-to-end encryption on chats, it did not have a function to store these messages in the cloud with the same level of encryption. This meant governments and law enforcement could potentially obtain and view backed-up messages between WhatsApp users.

In a blog post published yesterday (14 October), Facebook said it was the first major messaging service to roll out such extensive privacy features.

“Starting today, we are making available an extra, optional layer of security to protect backups stored on Google Drive or iCloud with end-to-end encryption. No other global messaging service at this scale provides this level of security for their users’ messages, media, voice messages, video calls and chat backups.”

Users can now secure their end-to-end encrypted backup with either a password of their choice or a private 64-digit encryption key. WhatsApp and backup service providers will not be able to read users’ backups or access the key required to unlock the messages.

The app’s 2bn global users send more than 100bn messages every day. Users will have to manually activate the new feature, as it is optional. It will be available in every market where WhatsApp is operational.

Earlier this year, the company was involved in a legal row with the Indian government over privacy. WhatsApp sued over India’s updated rules, which would give the government more powers to trace “unlawful” messages. WhatsApp said the new regulations would lead to “mass surveillance”.

Privacy-focused organisation Electronic Frontier Foundation described WhatsApp’s latest encryption move as a “big win for user privacy and security”.

“This privacy win from Facebook-owned WhatsApp is striking in its contrast to Apple,” it said in a blog post, which called for Apple to provide end-to-end encryption across iCloud backups.

“WhatsApp is raising the bar, and Apple and others should follow suit.”

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Blathnaid O’Dea was a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic until 2024.