For the past six weeks the biggest story out of the tech. world has been the FBI’s battle with Apple to unlock a terrorists IPhone. Apples refusal to cooperate has sparked a red hot debate over digital privacy and security. Recently the founders of WhatsApp have managed to make bigger Silicon Valley news than Apple, and the FBI.
WhatsApp is an online messaging service that is currently owned by Facebook, that has grown into one of the world’s biggest, most important applications. It is estimated that over one billion people use the app for messaging, trading pictures and videos, as well as making phone calls. WhatsApp founders Brian Acton and Jan Koum teamed up with well-known coder and cryptographer “Moxie Marlinspike to add end to end encryption to every form of communication on its service.
Now any group of people using the service will encrypt all messages, phone calls, pictures and videos moving within the app, no matter if it’s being used with IPhones, Android, or Windows. With this end to end encryption not even WhatsApp employees can read any of the data being sent across the app. This has been done so that WhatsApp has no way to comply with a court order demanding access to the content of any messages, phone calls, videos, or pictures.
“Building secure products actually makes for a safer world, though many people in law enforcement may not agree with that,” says Acton, who was the 44th employee at Yahoo before co-founding WhatsApp in 2009 with Koum, who also worked at Yahoo. “With encryption,” Acton explains, “anyone can conduct business or talk to a doctor without worrying about eavesdroppers. With encryption you can be a whistleblower- and not worry.”
The Justice Department along with the FBI declined to comment on this story; but many inside the government and out are sure to take issues up with this company’s move. At the end of 2014, WhatsApp started encrypting a portion of its network. In the months following that, the service has been used to help aid criminal acts, including the terrorist attacks on Paris last year. The Justice Department was considering a court case against WhatsApp after a wiretap order ran into the apps end to end encryption.
“The government doesn’t want to stop encryption. But the question is: what do you do when a company creates an encryption system that makes it impossible for court authorized search warrants to be executed? What is the reasonable level of assistance you should as from that company?” said Joseph DeMarko, a former federal prosecutor who specializes in cybercrime and has represented various law enforcement agencies, as well as backing the Justice Department and the FBI in the battle with Apple.
WhatsApp declined to discuss any particular wiretaps. Moreover, the prospecting of a court case doesn’t waiver Acton and Koum in the least bit. Espousing an article of faith that’s commonly held among Silicon Valley engineers, sometimes devoutly, sometimes casually; the believe that online privacy must be protected against surveillance of all kinds.
“We’re somewhat lucky here in the United States, where we hope that the checks and balances hold out for many years to come and decades to come. Bit in a lot of countries you don’t have these checks and balances,” Koum stated. Coming from Koum, this is not an academic point, as the majority of WhatsApp users are outside of the US. “The argument can be made that you want to trust the government, but you shouldn’t because you don’t know where things are going to go in the future.”
WhatsApp founders started adding encryption to they’re app back in 2013 and the doubled their efforts in 2014 after they were contacted by Marlinspike. The coder runs an open source software project, Open Whisper Systems, that provides encryption for messaging services. Marlinspike is well known in the tech security and privacy fields. The fact that he is taking sides with WhatsApp engineers working on the project and the brain trust at Facebook that’s backing the effort, is hardly extreme in relation to Silicon Valley’s bigger head-butts with governments and law enforcement over privacy. In Silicon Valley the strongest encryption is the normal.
“Technology is an amplifier, with the right stewards in place, with the right guidance, we can really effect positive change,” Acton says.
For other secure messaging apps visit Eff’s Secure Messaging Scorecard