As the backdoor debate raged on last week, news broke that the FBI had broken the encryption on the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone without Apple’s help. This marked the end of one of the most public debates over encryption to ever take place in the United States, but only on the surface. The fight between Apple and the FBI will likely continue in spirit, with a strengthening of the focus on encryption in the tech world and the legal world. As one of the first big blows in this new, overarching battle, WhatsApp has just switched on end-to-end encryption for their billion-plus userbase, essentially leaving them unable to comply with any government or police requests for customer information.
WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton spoke out in favor of encryption, saying that it creates a safer world and lets people speak freely without fear of eavesdropping or retribution. He says that private conversations with doctors or even risky activities like whistleblowing are made much safer, easier and accessible for everybody, including people who may have otherwise chosen not to engage in such behaviors for fear of what may happen if their conversations, transactions or other private business were intercepted by other parties. Any and all data passing through WhatsApp will go through encryption at various stages of moving from the origination to the destination, inaccessible by any party except the originator and the intended recipient, a process known as end-to-end encryption.
According to the app’s two founders, this move toward end-to-end encryption is intended to bolster personal privacy and security worldwide. The two spoke of the checks and balances in place in the United States and how users in most of the world don’t have these same systems to fall back on, leaving the use of end-to-end encrypted services as the only real alternative for true personal security. Various agents in the U.S. government, including the Department of Justice have reportedly refused to speak about the issue. Former federal prosecutor Joseph DeMarco did speak on the matter, saying that the government has nothing against encryption in and of itself, but expect a certain level of cooperation with lawful orders to be possible. According to the Department of Justice, there is an outstanding wiretap order on the books for WhatsApp that cannot be fulfilled due to encryption that the app has had in various forms since 2013. It is unknown what the Department of Justice may have to say about this newest deployment.