WhatsApp will be providing end-to-end encryption across all mobile platforms where you can run the app. To activate end-to-end encryption on your WhatsApp, you need to be running the latest version of the app.
What does end-to-end encryption mean?
- It prevents 3rd parties from accessing your data while it is travelling from your device to the recipient’s device
- Instead of storing the data in plain text, the WhatsApp servers will store the information in encrypted format
- All the communication travels in an encrypted form
- A cryptographic key is needed to decrypt the information
- Telecom providers, Internet providers and even WhatsApp people cannot read your messages
Do you have to carry out special steps in order to send encrypted messages on WhatsApp?
No extra steps are needed to be able to send encrypted messages on WhatsApp. All you have to do is update your copy of WhatsApp to its latest version. It is always activated by default – provided you have the latest version. It will work on any device that can run the latest version of WhatsApp.
How do you know that messages that you are sending on WhatsApp are encrypted?
It is not as if you are going to witness something extraordinary while trying to find out whether the messages that you send on WhatsApp are encrypted or not. Just tap on a particular conversation with one of your WhatsApp contacts. Tap on the name and then tap on “Encryption”(again, this will happen after you have updated to the latest version). There you will see an encryption key that will be unique to that particular conversation. You can compare the encryption key with the recipient if he or she is in the vicinity or if there is a way to exchange this information. You can also scan each other’s QR code to find out whether you’re using the same encryption key or not. Again, this is not the stuff non-technical persons would bother with.
Why so much hubbub about sending encrypted messages on WhatsApp?
Although the promoters of WhatsApp have been working on incorporating encryption within WhatsApp for a couple of years now, the feature got momentum after the recent tussle between Apple and the FBI in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings. The government had almost forced Apple to help the FBI decrypt the iPhone off the San Bernardino terrorist. Here’s a nice analysis at Wired, about the implications of people’s ability to send encrypted messages on WhatsApp.
Recently Facebook’s Latin American Vice President was arrested by the Brazilian police for not helping the law enforcement agencies decrypt one of the devices of the mafia bosses. If all the WhatsApp communication is encrypted end-to-end, no government would be able to force the promoters of WhatsApp to reveal information because they won’t HAVE the information. It also means if a heinous crime happens through WhatsApp, the promoters will be able to totally absolve themselves of any direct responsibility because the encryption is happening between the users and the company has no clue what is the nature of their communication.
Considering that more than 1 billion people are using WhatsApp to exchange messages, send images and make phone calls, incorporating encryption into the app is quite a significant move and a very important development in the way people’s privacy is secured and also in the way the sort of difficulties the law enforcement agencies are going to face.
Is this an extreme step? The coming days will tell as more analysis will begin to appear.
Anyway, why would you send encrypted messages in WhatsApp?
For most of the people, the ability to send encrypted messages in WhatsApp is plain rhetoric, unless you’re doing something that needs to be kept secret.
It also makes a difference where you live. Is there tight surveillance in your country and you need to exchange messages with your fellow comrades that are perhaps, anti-government and the government intercepting your messages may lead to you being arrested? In many countries it’s an everyday reality, so over there, whether you can send encrypted messages in WhatsApp or not can turn out to be a matter of life and death.
Also, these companies are opening up branches in many countries and sometimes it can be dangerous to operate in certain countries (for example the Facebook Latin America Vice President being arrested in Brazil for not divulging information). In such countries, if users can send encrypted messages in WhatsApp without the involvement of the company, the entire responsibility of divulging sensitive information will fall upon either the law enforcement agencies or the particular users exchanging communication with each other.