WhatsApp Sets Itself On Collision Course With Law Enforcement With New Encryption Service For All Messages
One of the world’s most popular messaging applications, WhatsApp, announced Tuesday that messages exchanged between its 1 billion users around the world will—from now on—be fully encrypted before they are transmitted over global data networks.
What it means to users of the Facebook-owned service is that all text messages, file transfers, and voice calls will be scrambled en route between users’ phones so they can’t be intercepted—not even by WhatsApp itself. WhatsApp has been slowing adding such end-to-end encryption to its service since 2014, but it has taken until now for the company to extend it to all communications across all devices.
By bringing it to the entirety of its vast user base, WhatsApp has made the technology the most widely used cryptographic tool on the planet.
“The desire to protect people’s private communication is one of the core beliefs we have at WhatsApp, and for me, it’s personal,” said Jan Koum, one of the app’s founders who was raised in Ukraine under Soviet rule. “The fact that people couldn’t speak freely is one of the reasons my family moved to the United States,” he said in a statement released by the company.
The move is sure to draw the ire of law enforcement and public safety officials who fear such technology will be used by criminals and terrorists to conceal their activities. Under the new system, only WhatsApp users will be able to unscramble the content of messages, though the firm would still be able to hand over metadata about users such as who they are communicating with and when.
Earlier versions of the service have already brought the company into conflict with law enforcement officials. In December, WhatsApp was temporarily blocked in Brazil because the company couldn’t hand over encrypted messages sought by law enforcement in relation to a drug case. The ruling cut off all 100 million Brazilian WhatsApp users for 48 hours before a senior judge overturned it.
But Amnesty International and other civil liberty groups called WhatsApp’s move a “huge victory” for free speech.
“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,” the WhatsApp statement said. “Fortunately, end-to-end encryption protects us from these vulnerabilities.”