'Landmark' WhatsApp Move Renders Wiretaps Useless
It adds encryption
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 6, 2016 1:26 AM CDT
The WhatsApp and Facebook app icons on a smartphone.   (AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File)

(Newser) – One of the world's most popular apps has just added strong end-to-end encryption, making the communications of 1 billion users off-limits to wiretaps and potentially setting up a US legal battle bigger than the Apple-FBI clash. WhatsApp has been steadily increasing encryption over the last 18 months and with its latest update, text messages, attachments, and voice calls can only be deciphered by the recipient, meaning that it would be impossible for the Facebook-owned company to comply with wiretap orders, the Guardian reports. The encryption was built by a relatively small team of engineers, including renowned cryptographer Moxie Marlinspike. Given the scale, this is a "landmark event" for privacy advocates, writes a blogger at Fortune.

WhatsApp founder Jan Koum grew up in Soviet-era Ukraine, and he says one of the company's core beliefs is to protect the private communications of its users, most of whom are outside the US. "We're somewhat lucky here in the United States, where we hope that the checks and balances hold out for many years to come and decades to come," he tells Wired. "But in a lot of countries you don't have these checks and balances. The argument can be made: Maybe you want to trust the government, but you shouldn't because you don't know where things are going to go in the future." He says that while the decision to encrypt was made before Facebook acquired WhatsApp, "if they were not supportive of us, we wouldn't be here today."