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Take that, FBI: WhatsApp just turned on encryption for one billion subscribers

Sahil Bhalla | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 6:09 IST

Just when it seemed like the biggest confrontation in tech was underway with Apple vs FBI, along comes a whopper: WhatsApp this evening announced that it has turned on end-to-end encryption for all users. The implications are huge.

In lay terms, what it means is this: only the sender and the receiver can read the contents of the message - even the employees of the company will not be able to read or see the contents of your Whatsapp exchanges.

For over a year, the company and its employees had been hard at work ensuring that the encryption works across all platforms and for all different types of messages. On the morning of Tuesday, 5 April, a spokesperson for the company said that the encryption has now been turned on for all its one billion users at once. That now means that WhatsApp, unlike many other companies in the information business, has no way of complying with any court anywhere in the world demanding access to contents of messages, photos, videos, phone calls, of its users.

In short, WhatsApp just threw its might behind the Apple worldview - and they did one better, because they're stalling the government on arguably one of the biggest platforms in the world - service used by one billion people on every spec and model of mobile device imaginable.

So who's behind this giant display of the middle finger to the world's anti-privacy brigade?

"Today, the enigmatic founders of WhatsApp, Brian Acton and Jan Koum, together with a high-minded coder and cryptographer who goes by the pseudonym Moxie Marlinspike, revealed that the company has added end-to-end encryption to every form of communication on its service," reads the Wired article. WhatsApp, Wired further reveals, managed to do this with a team of only 15.

One of the arguments posed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is that it will be less effective on the whole if it can't tap into the communications of terrorists and others. On the other hand, the companies, like WhatsApp and Apple, say that encryption is essential to the consumers' right to privacy. Recently, a Brazilian court ordered a temporary shutdown of WhatsApp in the country because it failed to turn over messages to the country as they were already encrypted.

A week ago, the Justice Department had suspended the case against Apple after it found another way to get into and extract data from Syed Rizwan Farook, San Bernardino shooter's phone. Apple CEO Tim Cook had released an open letter refusing the court order sent to them to unlock the phone.

With the new techology in place, built by Open Whisper Systems, under no circumstance will WhatsApp be able to read messages, see photos or videos or review phone calls. This is the beauty of end-to-end encyrption for the customer.

The encryption technology will be turned on by default and WhatsApp users don't have to make any changes. It will be enabled automatically. For its part, Apple does provide end-to-end encryption for its own iMessage and FaceTime messaging services.

Whatever the reaction to this news, WhatsApp and its move towards complete end-to-end encryption is sure to set a precedent in this world.

First published: 5 April 2016, 9:53 IST
Sahil Bhalla @IMSahilBhalla

Sahil is a sports and tech correspondent on the speed news desk at Catch. A gadget freak, he loves offering free tech support to family and friends. He studied at Sarah Lawrence College, New York and worked previously for Scroll. He selectively boycotts fast food chains, worries about Arsenal, and travels whenever and wherever he can. Sahil is an unapologetic foodie and a film aficionado.