WhatsApp has extended the option of communicating over the application without being eavesdropped on. The encryption feature has been developed by the messaging giant with support from Open Whisper Systems, the makers of another popular messaging app, Signal.
This means, messages sent using the app will be end-to-end encrypted: Once a message leaves the sender’s phone, it is turned into a series of numbers and alphabets that only the intended receiver’s phone can decipher.
So what does it do, why does it matter, and what is not encrypted?
1. What does end to end encryption do:
In a blog post, the Facebook-owned company explains:
“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.”
WhatsApp further stated that “your messages are secured with a lock, and only the recipient and you have the special key needed to unlock and read them. For added protection, every message you send has its own unique lock and key. All of this happens automatically: No need to turn on settings or set up special secret chats to secure your messages.”
2. How to activate end-to-end encryption:
It should be noted that the feature is enabled by default in WhatsApp, which means that if you and your friends are on the latest version of the app, all chats will be end-to-end encrypted. Users will not have the option of switching it off. Other messaging services like Telegram offer users an opt-in feature for encrypted communication called ‘secret chat’.
3. How will this affect law enforcement:
This might further drive a wedge between law enforcement agencies and the tech industry across the world. In the US, Apple is fighting a battle with the FBI on the issue of encryption. The federal investigative agency and other law enforcement agencies believe that stronger encryption protocols may allow criminals and terrorists to communicate with impunity.
Technology companies on the other hand argue that better encryption allows them to provide better privacy and security to their users.
According to a report on Statista, 12% of India’s population (approximately about 175 million people) is active on WhatsApp.
4. What are the loopholes that remain:
A report on Livemint says that WhatsApp is not encrypting everything. Buried in the fine print of its new terms and conditions 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.”
This means 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 including the date, time and recipient numbers. This information can later be made available if a government requests it.