WhatsApp, the Facebook owned messaging app which is now globbally being used by more than one billion people, on Tuesday introduced full encryption for its service, a way to ensure that only the sender and recipient can read messages sent using the app.
Known as “end-to-end encryption,” it will be applied to photos, videos and group text messages sent among people in more than 50 languages across the world, including India, Brazil and Europe. Previously, only one-to-one text messages were fully encrypted.
“Every day we see stories about sensitive records being improperly accessed or stolen,” WhatsApp said in a blog post. “And if nothing is done, more of people’s digital information and communication will be vulnerable to attack in the years to come.”
“Fortunately, end-to-end encryption protects us from these vulnerabilities,” the company said.
The move thrusts WhatsApp further into a standoff between tech companies and law enforcement officials over access to digital data, one that pits Silicon Valley’s civil libertarian ideals against the federal government’s concerns over national security. Increased encryption will make it more difficult, if not impossible, for the authorities to intercept WhatsApp communications for investigations.
The government has faced similar issues with companies like Telegram, Signal and Wickr Me, messaging services that also offer encrypted communications.
The debate over access to digital data erupted in February when a federal court in California ordered Apple to help crack open an iPhone used by a gunman in the San Bernardino, Calif., rampage last year. Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, resisted the order, saying that the company needed to protect individuals’ privacy. Law enforcement officials, including the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, have criticized encryption as a hindrance to investigations, including in terrorism cases.
Last month, President Obama said in a speech that he opposed the stance on encryption taken by technology companies. The Justice Department later dropped its demand that Apple help open the iPhone of the San Bernardino killer after saying that it had found another, undisclosed, way into the device.
End-to-end encryption for WhatsApp is of particular concern to the F.B.I., considering the service’s huge subscriber base and large international footprint. With increasing amounts of communications now sent across messaging services, encrypted texts, video, photos and the like may end up being more problematic for law enforcement than locked devices. The encryption on WhatsApp will be turned on by default, so users will not be required to enable it themselves.
WhatsApp has previously clashed with law enforcement over its digital data. Last month, the federal police in Brazil arrested a Facebook executivefor not turning over information from a WhatsApp account in a drug trafficking case. The executive was released.
In the United States, the Justice Department has been discussing how to proceed in a continuing criminal investigation in which a federal judge approved a wiretap, but investigators were stymied by WhatsApp’s encryption.
The primary purpose of encryption is to protect the confidentiality of digital data stored on computer systems or transmitted via theInternet or other computer networks. Modern encryption algorithms play a vital role in the security assurance of IT systems and communications as they can provide not only confidentiality, but also the following key elements of security: