5 questions about the new WhatsApp encryption upgrade

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As of Monday, April 4, 2016, WhatsApp has become the largest encrypted messaging app in the world, by launching its end-to-end encryption upgrade across all communications platforms.

Just when we thought the Apple v. FBI case was an unprecedented statement in favor of digital freedom, this announcement brings the encryption debate to a whole new level. But what has the new WhatsApp upgrade changed, exactly?

1. What Is End-To-End Encryption?

End-to-end encryption (E2EE) is a method of encryption that only allows the recipient of a message to read it, and prevents third parties access to it. In E2EE, the data is encrypted on the sender’s system and only the recipient’s device can decrypt it.

In the words of WhatsApp CEO and co-founder Jan Koum:

“Now every message, photo, video, file, and voice message you send, is end-to-end encrypted by default if you and the people you message use the latest version of our app. Even your group chats and voice calls are encrypted”

WhatsApp has set this encryption to be turned on by default so that all users can benefit from it without having to change any settings. The result is WhatsApp can’t see, intercept, or retrieve any conversations, even if they want to.

2. Why Did WhatsApp Upgrade to E2EE?

Before this announcement, WhatsApp wasn’t known for an effective commitment to protecting users’ data from government intrusion. Quite the contrary, in fact, WhatsApp was recently flagged by the EFF in its “Who’s Got Your Back” report, for its failure to comply with the industry data protection standards.

It seems, though, that this long-awaited upgrade has been on the cards for quite a while. According to WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton, ensuring users’ privacy is just giving them back what they always used to have:

“If you look at human history in total, people evolved, and civilizations evolved with private conversations and private speech. If anything, we’re bringing that back to individuals”

3. How Will Encryption Affect the Average WhatsApp User?

With this upgrade, WhatsApp is now one of the most secure ways to communicate electronically.
Sensitive information – personal information, bank details, business intelligence, etc. – can now be safely exchanged without anyone being able to intercept it. Critically, it also means WhatsApp cannot provide copies of any of our communications to governmental authorities.

4. Will Everything on WhatsApp Be Encrypted?

Shortly after the announcement, a journalist at The Intercept, Micah Lee, found a line in WhatsApp’s privacy terms saying the service may archive the date, time, and recipient numbers of the messages sent with its service. The actual message contents, WhatsApp claims, are not held on the servers at all.

5. Why Is Whatsapp Encryption so Important?

With more than one billion users, spanning all parts of the world, the Facebook-owned company has a global reach.

By taking an offensive step towards privacy and securing billions of messages, WhatsApp sets an example that pushes other big data companies to make a similar choice. Who would want to use a non-encrypted message service now?

Let’s hope the Whatsapp inspired awakening of the encryption debate will not stop here. In the words of Jan Koum, it’s only the beginning:

The encryption genie is out of the bottle.

Featured image: mrhighsky / Dollar Photo Club