What WhatsApp is not encrypting
WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned popular messaging service, has turned on end-to-end encryption for its 1 billion users globally. This monumental move was announced on Tuesday in a blog post by company founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton: “From now on when you and your contacts use the latest version of the app, every call you make, and every message, photo, video, file, and voice message you send, is end-to-end encrypted by default, including group chats.
The idea is simple: when you send a message, the only person who can read it is the person or group chat that you send that message to. No one can see inside that message. Not cybercriminals. Not hackers. Not oppressive regimes. Not even us. End-to-end encryption helps make communication via WhatsApp private—sort of like a face-to-face conversation.”
However, a closer look at the terms and conditions reveals that WhatsApp is not encrypting everything. Buried in the fine print is this line: “WhatsApp may retain date and time stamp information associated with successfully delivered messages and the mobile phone numbers involved in the messages, as well as any other information which WhatsApp is legally compelled to collect.”
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What this means is that while the contents of the actual messages are encrypted and not stored on WhatsApp servers, it still leaves plenty of information up for grabs. This includes the date, time and recipient numbers, information which can later be made available upon government request, should the need arise.
WhatsApp’s move comes in the wake of the recent case between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Apple Inc., where the government had repeatedly asked Apple to create a backdoor entry into the iPhone software (in tech terms, break the phone), which the Cupertino-based tech giant refused stating that this could potentially compromise the data privacy and security of all iPhone users globally. However, last Monday, the US Justice Department announced that it had successfully broken the iPhone that belonged to the San Bernardino shooter without Apple’s help and accessed the data stored on the same.
Encryption, as the company itself points out, is one of the most important tools governments, companies and individuals have to promote safety and security in the new digital age. But this may well prove to be one loophole WhatsApp didn’t think of.