WhatsApp end-to-end encryption: Why it's not just about the ongoing Apple-FBI battle

In a well-timed announcement, we must say, WhatsApp has decided to bring end-to-end encryption to its user base, which is over 1 billion.


Ever since the raging war between Apple and the FBI over breaking into a terrorist's iPhone began, the word 'encryption' has been thrown around often. In a well-timed announcement, we must say, WhatsApp has decided to bring end-to-end encryption to its user base, which is over 1 billion. This means, every message, photo, video or data shared between users or groups is encrypted from the moment you send it till the recipient receives it.

End-to-end encryption is turned on by default. All you need is a device running the latest version of WhatsApp across platforms – Android, iOS, Windows or even an older Nokia phone. This also means, WhatsApp won't comply with any court orders of breaking into its app. You can read more about the end-to-end encryption here.

Taking the Apple-FBI battle background, WhatsApp has made it harder for any agency or cybercriminals or even the government bodies to break into its messaging service. However, this isn't something new, as WhatsApp's possibility of stepping into Apple's shoes for taking on the FBI were quite evident early last month, but only shadowed by the mighty Apple's court hearings and other announcement, of course.

There were reports floating on how authorities wanted to break into WhatsApp in a criminal investigation in Brazil, and WhatsApp said it can't do much to help. Apple did mention the possibility (though, it refused to) to build a backdoor, but WhatsApp plainly said it cannot do anything about it, even if it wants to. It is quite possible, there's another crypto war, and this time between the anti-encryption supporters and Facebook-owned WhatsApp. But is this all about the encryption drama that has been unfolding for months? No, it goes well beyond that.

Founders Brian Acton and Jan Koum are known to have started encryption from 2013-14. It was when Coder and cryptographer Moxie Marlinspike got in touch with them. Marlinspike runs a open source software project, Open Whisper Systems, offering encryption for messaging services. What's more interesting is how Open Whisper Systems has received an estimated $2.25 million from the Open Technology Fund, a group with main funder being the United States government. Basically, American tax dollars. Now, he also plans to bring it to other systems.

"In tech security and privacy circles, Marlinspike is a well-known idealist. But the stance he has taken alongside Acton and Koum—not to mention the other WhatsApp engineers who worked on the project and the braintrust at Facebook that’s backing the effort—is hardly extreme in the context of Silicon Valley’s wider clash with governments and law enforcement over privacy," points out a report by Wired.

Now, he also plans to bring it to other systems. This makes Moxie Marlinspike a central figure in the encryption debate. It gives WhatsApp the ability to shed off the image of being a casual messaging service, and become something more serious that people can continue to use and won't have to abandon in the wake of encryption debates. A messaging service that can be used by businesses (WhatsApp for businesses, in-store purchases and more could be in the pipeline) alike.

Marlinspike is quite a well-known figure and his secured message and call app, Signal, was among the talks in the White House. And, if the government grant project is raising some questions, it should be noted that Edward Snowden has openly urged users to use anything that the dreadlocked coder releases. It gives Facebook, the ability to tap onto these over billion users, and probably attract countless more. Afterall, you will use a messaging service, that your friends do, right?

There is no denying that the announcement is a part of a bigger plan, something Facebook is 'mostly' known to execute well. This also brings to light another factor that WhatsApp recently pulled the plug on a few OS versions of leading platforms, and one such is Blackberry 10. BlackBerry is already known for its encrypted BBM, and this also means WhatsApp has gone all out to wage a war against competing messaging services.


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