Instant messaging app WhatsApp has enabled end-to-end encryption for all data sent and received on the app. Every message sent, photo or video shared, documents and files sent to friends or colleagues and WhatsApp voice calls have now been made completely secure. This means that anyone with malicious intent trying to intercept or snoop into conversations will not be able to access any data. WhatsApp says this feature will be enabled on apps running on iOS, Android, Windows, Blackberry and Nokia devices.

What is end-to-end encryption?

A lot of instant messenger apps transmit your messages as plain text, which means anyone who is able to intercept your conversations through the network or access the app’s servers can read what you have sent and received. What end-to-end encryption does is that it scrambles the message in a series of digits, which can be unlocked only by the sender and receiver who are using the app itself for conversation. End-to-end encryption is essentially a secure method of communication where only the people communicating can access the messages. Cyber criminals, anyone snooping, anyone with a motive to hack, telecom service providers, internet companies, third-party apps and even government agencies cannot read encrypted communications.

WhatsApp users can also verify that their communications are not being intercepted by someone in the middle of the chain, by scanning a unique code on the phone of the other party they are conversing with. Since WhatsApp itself will not be able to access any user’s chats anymore, chances are they will not be able to assist in any potential government requests for the data of a particular user.

Is this the first time WhatsApp is encrypting conversations?

No. WhatsApp has previously encrypted data, but only partially. Text-based chats have been encrypted since November 2014. WhatsApp had been working with non-profit software organization Open Whisper Systems to enable complete encryption of all data on the platform. Now all communication is encrypted.

What does it mean for you?

First and foremost, you do not need to make any changes to the way you use WhatsApp. All the geek stuff is happening in the background, and neither the sender nor the receiver has to do much. What this means for you though is that there is greater assurance that no one will suddenly snoop into your chats and see the images or videos you are sharing, or listen in on voice calls made using the app. Even then, we would not recommend that you share personal or sensitive information over the communication, such as bank account details, online banking passwords, email passwords etc.

The latest development makes WhatsApp one of the most secure instant messaging apps now available for smartphones. The move comes just after Apple’s refusal to create a software backdoor into the iPhone 5c belonging to the San Bernadino shooter, despite the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) insistence. All Apple devices are end-to-end encrypted, which means that messages, calls and photos on iPhones cannot even be accessed by Apple. The same would now be the case with WhatsApp, which would perhaps be bad news for governments and agencies that like to snoop on users.

Incidentally, when the Apple versus FBI debate was playing out in public, WhatsApp chief executive officer and co-founder Jan Koum had come out in support of Apple, “Our freedom and liberty is at stake."

WhatsApp is by far the most popular instant messaging app globally. On 26 February, the company announced that they had crossed the 1 billion user mark globally. The second-most popular app, Facebook Messenger, currently has 800 million users.