Whatsapp recently had a habit of introducing new features pretty quickly. Just couple of weeks ago, there were mysterious double blue ticks appearing on your device, and that fueled a whole lot of concern and discussion. This snarky blue tick is a reminiscent shade of their parent Facebook, and well, tells people whether you have read their message or not. What’s the fuss? Yes, I read your message but I didn’t choose to reply. It’s not the end of the world. Life goes on. But I digress. this week Whatsapp announced that it is implementing end-to-end encryption, an upgrade to privacy protections that makes it nearly impossible for anyone to read users’ messages — even the company itself. So even if NSA were to file an injunction, well even Whatsapp / Facebook will not be able to divulge the evil plan you have been conjuring.
Whatsapp this week announced that it would integrate the open-source software Textsecure, created by privacy-focused non-profit Open Whisper Systems, into their chat systemss. The TextSecure software would scrambles messages with a cryptographic key that only the user can access. The result is practically uncrackable encryption. As of October 2014, WhatsApp is the most globally popular messaging app with more than 600 million users. This is followed by China’s WeChat (438 million users) and Japan’s LINE (400 million users). There are still some limitations. It only covers text messaging to one party, and does not encrypt group messages or pictures. It also currently only works on Android as well.
Prior to this, TextSecure had their own app launched in Feb 2014, but the user base was a far cry from the popular messenger players. It is not as if people didn’t want encrypted chat functions but the ease of use and existing user base were bigger advantages to continue to use Whatsapp. Nonetheless, more people have become security conscious. Post-Snowden and impact of other socio-political happenings have led to other encryption players such as Telegram to become more popular. E.g. Millions of Koreans have left their largest chat program (Kakao) after new crackdown on speech and inappropriate content.
Law enforcers aren’t happy. In US, the FBI had shared their concern that they need to have the ability to obtain a warrant from an independent judge to have the ability to investigate into criminal ongoings. This actually dates back all the way to the 90s. At that time when internet was just about rearing its head, there was ongoing legal discussion in the US termed the
Crypto Wars. It was longdrawn but the overarching question was: “Would ordinary citizens be free to protect their communications and private files using strong, truly secure cryptography, or would governments seek to force programmers and computer makers to build in backdoors that would enable any scheme of encryption to be broken by the authorities?” Well, at the end of it, the decision by the US government, at least, ultimately disapproved the effort to force companies to build “wiretap-ready” computers, set-top boxes, telephones, and consumer electronics. Reference to this is December 19, 1996 – Judge Marilyn Hall Patel Declares Crypto Restrictions Unconstitutional. That spun off encryption rights, and today you are free to lock, encrypt your data anyway you want. Many are anticipating further discussion in this area, and also application across other geographical states. China and India have been notorious in demanding communication access, and this had affected previous secure communications leader, Blackberry from expanding to those markets.
I know many corporations and their internal departments use Whatsapp or other non-secure messaging platform to enage in brainless chatter mostly, but off and on, snippets of confidential information would be passed across WhatsApp servers. That’s dangerous, and perhaps we might think that what’s the risk, but that’s where the national security and commercial espionage are looking to exploit. the new introduction would help to ensure secure communication and protect us from snooping eavesdroppers. Towing the line between security and encryption versus convenience had always been a challenge, but this is now made easier. Thumbs up for this change as compared to the irritating double blue ticks features, although most people would rather receive the update to disable the read receipts. That should be coming soon, as Whatsapp was rumoured to be testing a beta version recently. Looks like Whatsapp had been pretty active post the Facebook investment.