Will messaging apps ever really be banned?

We tend to associate the banishment of websites, social networks, and apps with developing countries led by autocratic regimes. Chat apps, which allow users to communicate via smartphone over the internet rather than through a carrier network as with SMS, have become the latest target.

The rationale behind censoring chat apps is often tied to security; if criminals can’t securely communicate with each other, then it becomes much harder for them to commit crimes.

In November 2015, Bangladesh banned the use of Viber, WhatsApp, and Facebook on “security grounds.” The Bangladeshi government didn’t say exactly why it implemented the ban, but observers say it was either in response to the shooting of an Italian priest - an act claimed by terrorist group ISIS - or to maintain order after the Bangladeshi Supreme Court upheld two death sentences for political leaders.

But it isn’t just developing countries like Bangladesh latching onto this trend. UK Prime Minister David Cameron proposed a complete ban on strong encryption, then doubled down on his stance in the wake of the recent attacks in Paris. Specifically, he took aim at WhatsApp, iMessage, and Snapchat. Encryption has become a topic of debate among politicians and presidential candidates in the US, too, ensuing in a tug-o-war between Washington and Silicon Valley tech companies that fight in favour of their users’ civil liberties.

When it comes to chat apps, encryption allows only the sender and intended receiver to read the messages sent between them. Snooping third parties who may intercept these communications, be they hackers or law enforcement, cannot decrypt the messages without either the private encryption key or extremely high-powered computing resources to break the encryption by brute force. Even if a government has those sorts of resources, it can’t possibly decode and police every message being sent back and forth between all users in an efficient manner.

WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Viber, and iMessage are among the many messaging apps that encrypt messages between users. They do so on the grounds that private user info should remain private, even to law enforcement. In a 60 Minutes report, Apple CEO Tim Cook defended iMessage’s use of encryption, saying, “There have been people that suggest that we should have a back door. But the reality is if you put a back door in, that back door’s for everybody, for good guys and bad guys.”

Security is the biggest argument against chat app encryption today, but it isn’t the only one. A month after the Bangladesh ban, Brazil instated a 48-hour shutdown of WhatsApp, the country’s most popular chat app. Brazil law enforcement didn’t cite any imminent acts of terrorism or impending loss of public order. Instead, the injunction came as a result of business interests. Mobile carriers in the country complained that users favored WhatsApp over traditional SMS text messaging, which cut into their income. The legal tactic didn’t work, though. Rather than resorting to SMS, Brazilians instead flocked to Telegram, a WhatsApp competitor. The cry from Brazilian telecom companies has been echoed by mobile carriers worldwide, though the more forward-thinking among them have opted to include popular chat apps in their subscription plans.

Then, of course, there’s outright censorship. As the line between social networks and chat apps starts to blur, countries with a history of censorship take aim at the latter just as they did the former. In China and Vietnam, for example, Western social networks have long been blocked from public view as a way to smother dissent and safeguard the official narrative. China has the most technologically robust censorship system in the world, known as the Great Firewall, which blocks WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Line, among many others. Encrypted chat apps allow citizens to communicate quickly and free of government supervision, which threatens order and the ruling party’s power. China’s most popular chat app, WeChat, is not encrypted. It is therefore heavily monitored and frequently censored by authorities.

In any of the above cases, users can circumvent bans with proxies and VPN software. A VPN, or virtual private network, masks a user’s IP address and true location while also encrypting all internet traffic, making everything the user does online effectively anonymous.

With economics, security, and censorship working against them, chat apps that can be considered private are beset on all sides. They do, however, have a source of power to fight back against oppressive regimes, antiquated Telco’s, and fear-mongering politicians: their users. WhatsApp, the most popular chat app in the world, boasts 800 million users worldwide.

Whether chat apps are banned or give into pressure requiring back door access for law enforcement depends on the enthusiasm (and apathy) of their users. The companies behind these apps must raise awareness and support about the threat to privacy posed by even well-intentioned government interference should they desire to exist in their current form.

Arthur Baxter works in Network Operations at ExpressVPN

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Digital Storm