WhatsApp introduces end-to-end encryption for its 1bn users

6 Apr 2016

Forget Apple and the FBI, add 1bn people empowered by social comms platform WhatsApp and a real battle over privacy and encryption is looming

Apple’s recent clash with the FBI could be just a sideshow compared to the inevitable showdown that will come now that Facebook-owned messaging platform WhatsApp has introduced end-to-end encryption for all of its 1bn users.

The FBI/Apple affair petered out after the FBI found a third-party firm that was willing to give it the ability to break the encryption on the iPhone 5c owned by one of the killers in the San Bernardino massacre.

But, now, the battle over encryption and backdoors has been lifted onto an entirely new spectrum – that of WhatsApp, a messaging platform that has more than 1bn users worldwide.

WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $19bn

‘Today, more than a billion people are using WhatsApp to stay in touch with their friends and family all over the world. And now, every single one of those people can talk freely and securely on WhatsApp’

Founded by Brian Acton and Jan Koum, WhatsApp is an alternative voice and SMS communications platform that lets users communicate for free within Wi-Fi networks.

Last night, Acton and Koum jointly announced end-to-end encryption.

“From now on, when you and your contacts use the latest version of the app, every call you make, and every message, photo, video, file and voice message you send, is end-to-end encrypted by default, including group chats.

“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 cyber-criminals. Not hackers. Not oppressive regimes. Not even us. End-to-end encryption helps make communication via WhatsApp private – sort of like a face-to-face conversation,” Acton and Koum said.

Clash with FBI and Washington will be inevitable


The message WhatsApp’s users around the world would have received last night

WhatsApp’s huge following will inevitably see the platform become part of evidence in future investigations, just like the iPhone in the San Bernardino case, and as mobile calls, text messages and location have in law cases over the last decade or so.

If anything, the declaration of end-to-end encryption on WhatsApp is a kind of clarion call by Silicon Valley to say it is standing by its principles on privacy, sowing the enevitable seeds of a legal clash with the FBI and the US Department of Justice in the very near future.

“We live in a world where more of our data is digitised than ever before. Every day we see stories about sensitive records being improperly accessed or stolen. And if nothing is done, more of people’s digital information and communication will be vulnerable to attack in the years to come. Fortunately, end-to-end encryption protects us from these vulnerabilities,” the WhatsApp statement continued.

“Encryption is one of the most important tools governments, companies, and individuals have to promote safety and security in the new digital age. Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about encrypted services and the work of law enforcement. While we recognise the important work of law enforcement in keeping people safe, efforts to weaken encryption risk exposing people’s information to abuse from cybercriminals, hackers, and rogue states.”

Koum said he grew up in the USSR during the communist era and the fact that people couldn’t speak freely was one of the reasons his family moved to the US.

“Today, more than a billion people are using WhatsApp to stay in touch with their friends and family all over the world. And now, every single one of those people can talk freely and securely on WhatsApp.”

If a clash with the FBI is inevitable, it might also be worth asking what WhatsApp’s owner Facebook intends to do with encryption around Messenger, its popular messaging platform, which is also used by almost 1bn people worldwide.

Perhaps the Apple spat with the FBI was just a skirmish. The real showdown between Silicon Valley and Washington DC over privacy in a digital world is still on the cards.

 WhatsApp image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years