WhatsApp encryption and private communication April 9, 2016Posted by Aonrud ⚘ in Internet security/privacy/information, Technology.
You may have seen during the week that WhatsApp have recently introduced end-to-end encryption, meaning even they (or the company’s owners in Facebook) can’t intercept the content of your communications. With a billion users, WhatsApp have rolled this out quietly to a huge number of people.
Of course the response from state security in its various forms isn’t entirely positive. For example, in the UK, Theresa May’s Investigatory Powers Bill could essentially seek to ban private encrypted communication. There are arguably legitimate cases law enforcement can point to, and there are plenty of unpalatable uses private communication can be put to, but ultimately this sort of choice is quite all-or-nothing. Unfortunately or otherwise, if there’s a back door of any kind, then your messages aren’t private, and guaranteeing only the ‘right’ parties can exploit that is difficult; and if they are properly encrypted, then they can’t be accessed, even in exceptional circumstances. It’ll be interesting to see what sort of pressure WhatsApp experience in the aftermath of this.
That also points to the issue that this service remains proprietary, so there is still a single target which could ostensibly be forced to stop providing it. Even though WhatsApp aren’t storing all your information (like, for example, Facebook are) you still require their software. I heard someone suggest recently that privacy has somewhat replaced the free software (libre, not gratis) movement’s prominence in technology rights. The two are intertwined of course, but WhatsApp points to the problem that removing the service requires only a single target, whereas decentralised, open source methods of communication (of which email, for all its flaws, is an example) are far harder to shut down.
Still, even though I’d prefer a decentralised free software alternative, credit where it’s due to WhatsApp for rolling out fully private communication to a huge swathe of people, many of whom may not have otherwise sought it out.