The instant messaging service provider WhatsApp has announced that it is now providing end-to-end encryption for text messages sent via the Android version of its app. It’s also aiming to roll out encryption to all picture, video and group messages sent via its Android app, and, in future, via apps on all other smartphone operating systems.
The open-source software Textsecure, developed by non-profit Open Whisper Systems, scrambles messages with a cryptographic key known only to the user. The result, says Wired, is “practically uncrackable encryption for hundreds of millions of phones and tablets that have WhatsApp installed.”
According to the BBC, the Android version of WhatsApp has been downloaded about 500 million times. Open Whisper Systems creator Moxie Marlinspike says, “I do think this is the largest deployment of end-to-end encryption ever.”
This move is not universally popular, however.
Law enforcement agencies frequently complain that such encryption makes it easier for criminals and terrorists to communicate. The head of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, associated digital privacy with crime in the Financial Times earlier this month:
“The extremists of Isis use messaging and social media services such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp… Techniques for encrypting messages or making them anonymous which were once the preserve of the most sophisticated criminals or nation states now come as standard…
“To those of us who have to tackle the depressing end of human behaviour on the internet, it can seem that some technology companies are in denial about its misuse.”
Denying that privacy was an absolute right, Hannigan said that customers would “not want the media platforms they use with their friends and families to facilitate murder or child abuse” and that he thought they “would be comfortable with a better, more sustainable relationship between the agencies and the technology companies.”
WhatsApp’s founder Jan Koum disagrees. He told Wired UK earlier this year:
“I grew up in a society where everything you did was eavesdropped on, recorded, snitched on. Nobody should have the right to eavesdrop, or you become a totalitarian state – the kind of state I escaped as a kid to come to this country where you have democracy and freedom of speech. Our goal is to protect it.”
State surveillance remains a contentious issue, especially after Edward Snowden’s revelations of the alleged interception of email and phone messages by the NSA and GCHQ. Finding the appropriate balance between online privacy and the security needs of the nation will continue to be a matter of debate for some time yet.
If you’re concerned about the security of your personal information, a good reassurance is an organisation’s certification to the government’s Cyber Essentials scheme. A Cyber Essentials badge demonstrates that an organisation has been accredited as having implemented the five government-approved cyber security controls. Click here for more information >>