Security advocates cheered while the FBI probably shed a tear or two Tuesday when WhatsApp announced that it was encrypting all it data end-to-end
Everything on the instant message service, including photos and videos sent and received by the app's one billion users, is now for users’ eyes only.
The California-based messaging service has been encrypting data bit by bit since 2013 but their move earlier this week is meant to ensure that all the information shared within its service is inaccessible to outsiders, thus protecting itself and its users.
“No one can see inside that message. Not cybercriminals. Not hackers. Not oppressive regimes. Not even us,” WhatsApp wrote in a blog post announcing the change.
So even if the app wanted to assist governments in providing information, they simply couldn’t.
Internet and messaging security has been making big news of late. Following the San Bernardino massacre, the FBI called for Apple’s assistance in unlocking the shooter’s iPhone.
Apple refused, and the two went to court. The case was resolved last month when the FBI paid a third-party company an undisclosed amount of money to get access to the phone. Whether or not the information found in the phone is useful remains to be seen.
A series of companies filed amicus briefs in support of Apple’s position against creating backdoors for law enforcement, of which WhatsApp was one.
This, however, has raised questions about the role that communication services play in investigations around acts of terror.
Following the Paris attacks, investigators found evidence that suggested the attackers were using encrypted apps, like WhatsApp and Russia-based Telegram, to communicate.
Whatsapp founder Jan Koum is having none of that though.
“I think this is politicians, in some ways, using these terrible acts to advance their agendas,” Koum told Wired Magazine.
Koum founded WhatsApp with fellow Yahoo employee Brian Acton back in 2009. The messaging service, now owned by Facebook, has always been committed to security.
“We live in a world where more of our data is digitized than ever before. Every day we see stories about sensitive records being improperly accessed or stolen,” the WhatsApp blog says.
With the NSA recently revealing that it only discloses about 91 per cent of the vulnerabilities it comes across to companies like Apple and the 2013 Edward Snowden leaks showing the lengths the agency goes through to access private messages, distrust of government is high in Silicon Valley. So rather than scaling back on encryption, services are increasing their efforts.
The FBI maintains that they require access to encrypted data to break up everything from terror plots to child pornography rings.
"Armed with lawful authority, we increasingly find ourselves simply unable to do that which the courts have authorized us to do, and that is to collect information being transmitted by terrorists, by criminals, by pedophiles, by bad people of all sorts," FBI director James Comey has said.
But it’s not just the U.S. government that’s applying pressure to tech companies. Last year the BBC reported that a Brazilian court ordered that WhatsApp services be suspended for 48 hours in the country after the app failed to comply with a court order in a criminal case. Twelve hours later the ban was lifted, when a judge realized that millions of people would be impacted by the decision.
TechCrunch estimates that about 93 per cent of internet users in Brazil use WhatsApp.
“I am stunned that our efforts to protect people's data would result in such an extreme decision by a single judge to punish every person in Brazil who uses WhatsApp,” Mark Zukerberg wrote at the time.
For WhatsApp, protecting data goes beyond concerns about the U.S. government because many of its one billion users are outside the U.S.. Last month, for instance, the French Parliament voted in favour of punishing smartphone makers who refused to hand over encrypted data.
“While we recognize the important work of law enforcement in keeping people safe, efforts to weaken encryption risk exposing people's information to abuse from cybercriminals, hackers, and rogue states,” they wrote.
“Technology is an amplifier. With the right stewards in place, with the right guidance, we can really effect positive change,” Acton told Wired Magazine.
In fact, they see the move to encryption as a harkening back to before the digital age.
"If you look at human history in total, people evolved and civilizations evolved with private conversations and private speech. If anything, we’re bringing that back to individuals,” Moxie Marlinspike, a coder and cryptographer with Whatsapp told Wired.
So far the FBI has not responded to WhatsApp’s change.