Messaging giant WhatsApp, which transmits conversations consisting of text, photos, videos, and location sharing, just turned on complete encryption for nearly one billion people. This means that no matter what happens, neither WhatsApp nor anyone else (including governments) can see the messages sent within the app. WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, which recently voiced support for Apple in its fight against the FBI.
Making encryption a standard feature for messaging services is a huge win for proponents of privacy, and WhatsApp is the largest app-based messaging service in the world. This offers a significant level of privacy for a large population of the world, without even requiring knowledge of what encryption means.
The encryption protocol was developed by Open Whisper Systems, the same company that makes encrypted chat app Signal.
It extends to every widely used smartphone platform, like iPhone, Android, and Windows Phone, but also some lesser-used ones like Nokia S40, Blackberry, and BB10.
WhatsApp is also adding a method of verifying that a connection is secure, by either scanning a QR code from the other phone or reading what WhatsApp calls a security code. Users can also quickly check whether an individual chat is encrypted by looking at the chat settings. Before you send someone a top-secret communique, make sure they’ve updated to the version released today.
Until every user updates their software, the service will not be completely secure, so it’s a good idea to check.
However, WhatsApp on iOS still backs up chat logs to iCloud, and despite any effort by Facebook, those could be given to a law enforcement agency. It’s not known whether the backups are encrypted, but we’ve reached out to Open Whisper Systems and will update with any new information.
The update to WhatsApp is available now, and updating the app is the only way to ensure encryption.