In some parts of the world, governments still keep a close eye on communications about political and social matters. That begs to ask the question: how good is WhatsApp at keeping our correspondences private?
WhatsApp is one of the most used mobile messaging apps worldwide, with over one billion users. Chances are you are one of them, and you have used the app today to talk with your friends or family. Our need for security and privacy is a widely debated issue in modern times, so companies struggle to assure their users about the safety of their service.
The most discussed feature of WhatsApp lately, especially after Facebook has purchased it, is its ability to secure all the messages with end-to-end encryption.
If you have the latest version of the app on your device, you have probably noticed a message in your chats in which the app informs about the end-to-end encryption of the chat and calls.
What Does This Mean?
First, let’s explain what encryption is and what does it mean for you as a user, for WhatsApp as a company and third parties like governments or the parent company, Facebook.
Encryption is coding the data in a message or a call so that it cannot be deciphered during transfer unless you have a security key. In this case, WhatsApp’s encrypting system only allows the sender and the receiver to know what has been sent. That applies to text messages, calls and media files that are being sent through WhatsApp from one device to another.
Now, you might think that all your messaging apps do this since you have access to your conversations through your private password, but WhatsApp has been the first company to have this initiative. Other apps have vulnerabilities, but they avoid them through E2EE (end-to-end encryption).
The difference is that not even the app itself can know what you are transmitting through it. That means that no third party can access your data, and this leaves no back door that hackers or entities that want to use your data against you or for their benefit can access.
This approach also means that government institutions can not access your WhatsApp conversations in any way. According to Tuko, that sparked a lot of media attention and debate, with critics stating that end-to-end encryption could offer communication ground to terrorist and intelligence organizations.
Besides more blunt security concerns of the law enforcements and government representatives, another discussion worth mentioning is data sharing between WhatsApp and Facebook since the acquisition by the latter. A lot of people express their concerns about Facebook’s privacy settings and worry that they affect their privacy on WhatsApp as well.
While the two apps do share some information, the end-to-end encrypting on WhatsApp still stands when it comes to your conversations. WhatsApp does register user behavior and sends it to Facebook, but that’s it.
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So How Are My Messages Being Stored and Retrieved?
If the WhatsApp servers don’t store your conversations, then how is it possible that you see your chat history and even retrieve it if you delete it by mistake? It’s simple: your messages are stored in your device’s internal memory and backed-up every day for unexpected situations.
WhatsApp has stated in their privacy section that they do not store your messages on their servers. However, from the moment you send your data until the recipient opens it, WhatsApp will temporarily store it. The messages are stored for up to 30 days in case the recipient’s phone is offline, turned off or it doesn’t have the app installed (but the account exists).
You can delete the backed-up data stored on your phone when you want, as well as opting out of automatic back-up of your history. But if you have the latest version of the app, you cannot choose whether your messages are encrypted or not. WhatsApp will just let you know that your service includes this feature.
Public Criticism of WhatsApp’s End to End Encryption
We live in a world that’s more connected than ever before, with exponential changes in the way we communicate. Naturally, our laws and expectations need to adapt to new situations constantly. More complex technologies mean it is more difficult to control them entirely. On the other hand, there are also a lot of ethical and personal rights issues concerning individual privacy and protection of personal information.
In this context, tech companies are fighting to implement better and better systems to protect their data and help their users feel secure and trust the app. WhatsApp’s initiative of treating their user’s conversations as if they were perfectly private, face-to-face conversations, attracted criticism from governments and authorities. Some even suggested that the E2EE technology should be banned or equipped with a “back door” in case governments need to use data as evidence or in their investigations.
The company’s answer emphasized that not having any backup door and not making any compromise regarding their users’ privacy is the best way to protect the users from third parties that might try to abuse them by exposing their information and using it against them.
Others may argue that the end to end encryption system is worthless if the ends are not secured. In this case, if the mobile device manufacturer does not protect the backed-up data, the encryption becomes useless.
The Future of Encrypted Personal Communication
The bottom line is, while WhatsApp is one of the first tech companies to use this kind of system in global communications, it can spark a revolutionary change in the way companies handle our communications. Other enterprises will surely weigh down the possibility of implementing it. Open Whisper System, the company that created this system for WhatsApp, is eager to collaborate with other messenger apps and provide the same level of security for their users.
Whether the future of personal communication will keep end-to-end encryption as it is at this moment or adapt it to situations that have not raised yet, what is certain is that the discussions will contain E2EE from now on.