WhatsApp: The FBI’s worst nightmare

End-to-end encrypted communications that can’t be undone – in other words a terrorist’s dream

whatsapp logo 8
Credit: WhatsApp

If encryption is something to be feared in the hands of terrorists, WhatsApp just delivered them a tool that will give the FBI nightmares much worse than the encryption on iPhones.

WhatsApp enlisted the help of Open Whisper Systems to implement the encryption, and according to that company’s blog, “This includes chats, group chats, attachments, voice notes, and voice calls across Android, iPhone, Windows Phone, Nokia S40, Nokia S60, Blackberry, and BB10.”

This will likely drive law enforcement crazy, the FBI in particular, because it makes it impossible for WhatsApp to obey court orders to decrypt specified communications. Even if it wanted to comply, it couldn’t. The encryption is set up between the endpoints in the communication and WhatsApp just moves the traffic.

Unlike the case with the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone, there’s nothing WhatsApp could do or technology it could create to change things.

This should trigger a renewed sense of urgency from the FBI and other proponents of backdoors that allow encryption vendors to decrypt on demand when presented with a court order. Because WhatsApp has no backdoor, it would take legislation mandating one to change things, assuming the company chooses not to install one voluntarily.

So the wrangling over this issue that had been embodied in the court case about Apple’s refusal to comply with an order to disable the brute-force protections on the San Bernardino iPhone will begin anew. Only this time since there’s nothing WhatsApp can do or create to make communications it facilitates accessible to third parties, legislation will be required. And that means more public debate of the issue.

The issue seemed to have moved to the back burner when the FBI got someone else to crack the terrorist’s iPhone and abandoned its legal battle with Apple to do it.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, says it’s likely that he will pass around such proposed legislation this week. The issue was never going to go away, but WhatsApp’s move means it’s back and likely to get attention sooner rather than later.

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