WhatsApp turns on end-to-end encryption for all users

The confrontation between Silicon Valley and government agencies over issues of privacy and security has taken a dramatic turn, as Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp announced it is turning on full end-to-end encryption across all of its communications.

All text messages, videos, photos and calls, across every device, for the entirety of WhatsApp’s userbase, will have end-to-end encryption activated by default in the newest version of the app. This essentially prevents anyone other than the recipient of the message from decrypting its contents.

“Encryption is one of the most important tools governments, companies, and individuals have to promote safety and security in the new digital age,” reads a statement, penned by WhatsApp founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton.

“Recently there has been a lot of discussion about encrypted services and the work of law enforcement. While we recognize the important work of law enforcement in keeping people safe, efforts to weaken encryption risk exposing people’s information to abuse from cybercriminals, hackers, and rogue states.”privacy surveillance

Koum and Acton’s statement comes in the wake of Apple’s clash with the FBI over the iPhone of gunman Syed Rizwan Farook. That case was resolved after the FBI obtained help from a third party to unlock the phone without Apple’s assistance, but many view the resolution as a temporary respite in the on-going debate over privacy and access.

WhatsApp introduced end-to-end encryption across part of its network in 2014, but is only now rolling out the security measure across all of its communications. The change would presumably prevent WhatsApp from facilitating a wiretap even if it was faced with a court order, although the company has declined to comment on specific wiretap orders.

“The desire to protect people’s private communication is one of the core beliefs we have at WhatsApp, and for me, it’s personal,” said Koum, who grew up in the Ukraine under communist rule. “The fact that people couldn’t speak freely is one of the reasons my family moved to the United States.”

To access end-to-end encryption, users will need to have the latest version of WhatsApp installed on their phone. The new build will show users when a message is encrypted, and whether a user in a group chat is running and older version that doesn’t support end-to-end encryption. This notification alone marks a significant move from the company – dragging security from behind the scenes to the front of the app, and further into public debate. 

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