As the government and the tech industry jockey to strike a balance between privacy and security, WhatsApp is trying to set a new standard. Wired reports that the messaging service, owned by Facebook and used by more than a billion people worldwide, has turned on end-to-end encryption (E2EE) on every form of communication — not just on your texts but your photos and videos as well.
This means that only the sender and the recipient would be able to read messages, and it’d be impossibly hard (probably just impossible) for others: Not even WhatsApp itself can decrypt the messages, so no government could force the company to do so.
End-to-end encryption, as the name implies, takes place only at either end of a given message: the message is encrypted locally on the phone or computer of the sender, and then sent, unreadable, across the internet, to the recipient’s phone or computer, where it is decrypted. There are a few implementations, but one popular method works like this: Every user has two keys, a public key and a private key; the public key, obviously, is available to everyone, but the private key is only accessible to that specific user. Messages sent to a specific user are encrypted with that user’s public key, and decrypted upon receipt with their private key, to which only they have access. This is how messaging systems like WhatsApp and iMessage work: The encryption keys aren’t even available to the companies providing the service. E2EE keeps data protected throughout the entire transaction, but it often requires a complex system of key management to implement.
It can be easily assumed that law enforcement is not thrilled at this move. WhatsApp has created a situation in which, even if compelled by court order, it cannot access user data. WhatsApp is already tied up in at least one court case concerning a wiretap order that, given the service’s setup, is impossible to implement.
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