WhatsApp on collision course with governments - experts

WhatsApp messaging is encrypted. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)
WhatsApp messaging is encrypted. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)

Cape Town – Instant messaging service WhatsApp’s move to encrypt its messages shows it’s serious about privacy, but it may run into problems with governments, say experts.

Facebook-owned WhatsApp this week announced that all messages, calls, images and video on its app would be encrypted so that not even WhatsApp employees could see the content.

READ: WhatsApp adds 'powerful' encryption to photos, videos

Experts welcomed the move that has attracted criticism from some law enforcement officials.

“WhatsApp’s move to provide end-to-end encryption to its one billion users is a significant step in demonstrating it is serious about increasing user privacy,” said Gary Newe, Field Systems engineer for F5 Networks in the UK, Ireland and Africa.

“Even WhatsApp won’t have access to this data, which will make it more challenging for governments and law enforcement agencies to gain access to data for lawful purposes,” he added.

Governments

Apple also recently announced default encryption in its iOS operating system which powers iPhones.

“Their actions mean that email is now the most insecure form of digital communications. Free email services transmit messages across networks in plain text and users have no guarantee that their data is stored safely,” said Aleks Gostev, chief security expert at GReAT, Kaspersky Lab of the moves.

WhatsApp subscribers have to ensure they have the latest version of the application for the encryption to work.

“In practice this means that WhatsApp is now one of the most secure ways to communicate electronically,” said Carey van Vlaanderen, chief executive of ESET Southern Africa.

READ: SA jumps up cyber attack list

However, some governments may not easily accept encryption of the popular messaging application.

India and Saudi Arabia in 2010 and 2012 moved to block BlackBerry’s BBM for its encryption on the grounds of national security.

Privacy has also not proved to be very popular with online users.

The Silent Circle’s super private Blackphone has struggled to gain traction in the market and anonymous browser DuckDuckGo’s web traffic has remained flat at between 11 and 12 million search queries.

Encryption skills

Opt-in encryption would have been a poor strategy for WhatsApp, despite the additional protection it offered.

“I don’t think anyone would go to the bother of switching this on… people are not really interested in it but it is still more protection for users which is good. It also serves as protection to WhatsApp, as they have no access to the data, so they are not in a position to provide the contents of the messages,” said Newe of opt-in encryption.

Gostev said that few internet users had the skills to encrypt their messages and platforms that provide the service make it easier to secure communications.

“End-to-end encryption will prevent attacks such as those known as 'Man in the Middle', where a malicious actor intercepts the email between the user and a server. But somehow that level of protection is rarely provided.”

READ: SA fails to make data breaches public - expert

Although there are encrypted email offerings, they have not seen wide acceptance and Gostev threw down the gauntlet to internet giants.

“The solution needs to come from the top email software developers, such as for Microsoft's Outlook Exchange. WhatsApp got it right: Encrypt everything, for one billion users, in one go.  Email, it's your turn now.”

How much do trust the security of your WhatsApp messages? Let us know


- Follow Duncan on Twitter

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