WhatsApp beefs up user privacy with full end-to-end encryption

At the time when it became obvious that the FBI (meaning also pretty much every government agency, everywhere) can unlock Apple’s smartphones and seize its data, good news is coming from Facebook, regarding encrypting WhatsApp data.

So far, only text messages between two users of the WhatsApp messaging service were encrypted. But messages containing multimedia, as well as group messages, were not protected. That is no longer the case. From now on, WhatsApp will encrypt all messages that pass through the app, voice calls included.

More than a billion of WhatsApp users will most certainly be pleased with this news, as now not even WhatsApp can decipher its users’ messages.

"WhatsApp has always prioritized making your data and communication as secure as possible," a blog post announcing the change said. "And today, we're proud to announce that we've completed a technological development that makes WhatsApp a leader in protecting your private communication: full end-to-end encryption."

"No one can see inside that message. Not cybercriminals. Not hackers. Not oppressive regimes. Not even us."

Apple has recently been locked in a legal battle with the FBI over the contents of an iPhone 5C, belonging to the San Bernardino shooter, Syed Rizwan Farook. First, the government asked Apple to help it unlock the phone, with the tech company saying it couldn’t, as it can’t decrypt the data without the PIN code.

After that, the government requested Apple to include a backdoor into its future devices, which could be accessed by law enforcement agencies, if need be. Apple declined, but the FBI managed to crack the phone somehow, withdrawing its request towards Apple.

Industry reaction

Richard Cassidy, technical director EMEA at Alert Logic:

"WhatsApp decision to encrypt it's data certainly heralds a big win for data privacy advocates of instant messenger applications; something that has become a bone-of-contention among privacy rights groups and users of WhatsApp globally. Apple and Google have led the way in taking a firm stance in protecting its users data, however in the current climate, where data intelligence is key to assuring the security of nations against nefarious acts by terrorist organisations, there needs to be the capacity to ensure data can be accessed where suspects are identified.

"It is clear that well defined legislation should govern access to any such data, so that legitimate users don't feel their privacy would be comprised under normal usage circumstances. This move signals a clear direction by popular user applications and IM services that others will follow suit on, to attract more users concerned with their data privacy rights, which we are seeing a stark increase of globally"

Fred Touchette, manager of security research at AppRiver:

"WhatsApp’s decision to offer full end to end encryption is a great thing. People have the right to privacy and security and this will certainly help provide more of both of those for the WhatsApp users. "If more companies used or provided more encryption, even outside the mobile market, we would certainly read far less about breaches wherein the data that was stolen was not only easily accessible, but also easily readable. Security and privacy are a good thing and we should all welcome it with open arms."

Jacob Ginsberg, Senior Director, Echoworx:

“It seems that the large players in the technology industry are taking more notice of people’s right to communicate privately – whether that be just email security or end-to-end encryption. Whatsapp is taking a a great leap towards securing users data and making them more aware of privacy. With WhatsApp, and last year Facebook, taking steps to educate users and raise awareness of secure communications, hopefully more will follow suit. This is vital as questions mount, particularly in the UK, about people’s right to privacy.

"We’ve recently seen large technology companies band together over issues with encryption – most notably with the recent case of Apple vs. FBI. Ultimately, people have a right to communicate securely and end-to-end encryption solutions are one way to give them what they are looking for."

Tony Pepper, CEO of Egress Software Technologies:

“It’s good news for security in general that consumer technologies, like WhatsApp, are offering end-to-end encryption – the more encryption becomes ‘the norm’, the less resistance IT will have in getting people to adopt it in a commercial environment.

The fact that end–to-end encryption is now being offered in popular apps means that employees will expect, and even push to have, the same level of information security from the data sharing tools they use for work, such as email and online collaboration. This could help to create a safer data sharing environment for everyone.

Image source: Shutterstock/Twin Design