WhatsApp just made the privacy-security war bloodier | brunch | columns | Hindustan Times
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WhatsApp just made the privacy-security war bloodier

Can WhatsApp’s move to promise end-to-end encryption prove to be a boon for terrorists?, asks Rajiv Makhni

brunch Updated: Apr 17, 2016 19:43 IST
WhatsApp’s encryption is partly a privacy feature but mostly a stand taken against the massive snooping and surveillance activities of governmental agencies.(Getty Images)

Whatsapp went ahead and encrypted all forms of messaging that you exchange. Messages, voice calls, images, videos and pretty much anything else that you send out. With a state-of-the-art level of encryption, the encryption and decryption is device to device (sender and receiver). So anything or anyone in-between, including WhatsApp or its servers, have no idea what’s being sent. And all of this happens automatically without you having to do anything. With more than one billion users of the service, this just became the single largest encryption and privacy rollout in the world. Awesome, right? Well...

Apple versus FBI
In recent months, the FBI versus Apple battle has made headlines and split the world between those who advocate citizen privacy over any form of security and safety and those who think otherwise. The dilemma can be brought down to a single hypothetical question. If a phone has information on it that could save lives, does hacking into it justify disregarding privacy? Let me paint this in more detailed strokes. If an investigating agency or government knows for sure that a device has exchange of information between terrorists that could save an entire city from being bombed, should a company that can break into that device refuse to do it on the basis of a citizens’ privacy stand? Which way you answer this determines which side of the divide you fall into.

Double the dilemma
Apple’s answer was fairly simple. They couldn’t assist in breaking into an iPhone because creating a master-key like that could lead to future abuse of other users. Apple suddenly became the poster boy for upholding the rights of privacy all across the world. It also became the most hated company for those that thought they were posturing and using it as a massive PR and publicity campaign and ignoring public safety. WhatsApp just took that huge Apple versus FBI headline and made it look like a small footnote. WhatsApp encryption opens up an all-new Pandora’s box of problems. A huge box!

Just a gimmick? Apple recently became the poster boy for upholding rights of privacy by refusing to break into an iPhone (Getty Images)

Privacy or activism?
WhatsApp’s encryption is partly a privacy feature but mostly a stand taken against the massive snooping and surveillance activities of governmental agencies. WhatsApp founders Brian Acton and Jan Koum, along with activist and cryptographer Moxie Marlinspike, have basically shown a collective middle finger to any agency that may come knocking on their doors to decrypt messages in the future. They simply can’t do it anymore as they have none of the codes or a backdoor to pull it off. And while this is great for us common folk, it’s even better for those that are planning nefarious activities and need to communicate with each other to make it happen. That terrorists use all forms of online messaging to plan and execute bombings and other such events is common knowledge. If they’ll now move to the world’s most private and encrypted messaging system is a no-brainer. Remember, they now have safety in numbers (a billion users), awesome privacy, guaranteed anonymity for all communication, plus a one hundred per cent assurance that even a court of law can’t force WhatsApp to break through the very encryption system they created in the first place.

The shocker
WhatsApp’s run-ins with law enforcement agencies are not new. They’ve had multiple situations where it has been pointed out that the service has apparently been used to plan acts of terror, including the attacks on Paris. A Brazilian court had even ordered a shutdown of WhatsApp in the country for similar reasons. Thus this omnipotent and omnipresent encryption is a clear message for the future. For WhatsApp, it’s always going to be privacy over security. It’s even more shocking that WhatsApp was able to pull it off despite being part of the world’s largest and more profitable data mining company. Facebook lives and breathes on the data we generate and sells that to its army of advertisers. To give away a gold mine of messages and media data that was being exchanged on WhatsApp is quite a decision. The mind boggles to think how Facebook will recoup its US$19 billion buyout of WhatsApp now.

No easy answers here
Is this encryption eventually a good thing for us? In this privacy versus security debate, the right answer is almost impossible to arrive at. Whatever feel-good this evokes within us about our right to privacy being safeguarded, may just get thrown out of the window when the next terrorist act takes down half a city, and it gets proven that it could have been thwarted if certain messages had been hacked into. Like I said, no easy answers here. Till then, enjoy this awesome encryption and send out a few extra messages and your latest collection of nudes to celebrate. Remember, absolutely no one knows or can see what you’re sending!

From HT Brunch, April 17, 2016

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First Published: Apr 16, 2016 19:55 IST