WhatsApp, which had rolled out end-to-end encryption on Android app back in 2014, has now started encrypting all communication on the platform by default, including calls, video calls, group messages, group calls etc.
This is a big move, as communication between two users will be impossible to read by others including WhatsApp. This means requests for data by governments will be technically impossible to comply with. Note that chatting with users that have not yet updated the app will result in the messages not being encrypted. The group or chat info displays the names of users that are yet to update.
The company has partnered with open source mobile security services provider Open Whisper Systems in 2014, to make use of the latter’s TextSecure protocol for this initiative. Open Whisper is known for developing mobile apps like TextSecure, RedPhone and Signal that allows users to make encrypted calls and send encrypted text messages.
WhatsApp has also launched a feature letting users verify that the messages are end to end encrypted. For this users can either scan a QR code or compare a bunch of numbers to verify. Note that messaging apps like Silent Text and Telegram already offer similar encrypted messaging services. We reported last month that tech companies like Apple, Facebook, Snapchat and Google were also looking to further encryption on their services.
MediaNama’s take: What makes WhatsApp’s move such a big deal is the scale of the company. In February, the company crossed 1 billion monthly active users, with over 42 billion messages, 1.6 billion photos and 250 million videos shared everyday. At the time, the company also claimed to have 1 billion groups on the platform.
Governments around the world will now have no way of even forcing WhatsApp to let them peek at messages between these billion users. In contrast, Apple, which was fighting a battle to uphold encryption against the FBI, had sold over 200 million iPhones in 2015 worldwide. It’s worth noting that earlier this month, the US Justice Department was looking into ways to wiretap WhatsApp conversations in an unnamed (non terrorism related) criminal investigation.
The US senate has also been working on a draft legislation to penalise tech companies for refusing to comply with court orders by refusing to provide information in investigations. Encrypting end to end conversations will make it simply impossible for companies to provide information even if they wanted to. Essentially, like in the Apple vs FBI case, governments will have to work to undermine encryption legally, or simply find a workaround like the FBI did.