Even as the Apple vs FBI debate rages on, a New York Times report indicates that the US government is setting sights on WhatsApp and its encryption next.
According to the New York Times report, which quotes sources within the Justice Department, the US government is looking at how to proceed in a criminal investigation case, where the judge has approved a wiretap, but “investigators were stymied by WhatsApp’s encryption.”
The NYT report says the case has nothing to with terrorism, though the exact nature of the investigation was not revealed. The report goes on to add, that while no decision has been taken yet, but if a court fight does take place with WhatsApp, then it will mean a new battle between Obama administration and Silicon Valley over encryption and security.
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WhatsApp has not yet added end-to-end encryption for its chats, like some other apps. However WhatsApp’s calls, chat are currently encrypted on the app, but end-to-end encryption ensures device-level security.
The Facebook-owned messaging app is however, working on adding end-to-end encryption to its chats. WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum had spoken about implementing the same at the annual Digital-Life-Design (DLD) conference in Munich in January 2016. Koum had said, “We are a couple of months away from calling it done. Soon we will be able to talk more about this.”
The end-to-end encryption will apply to messages and calls, and users will have to turn on the feature in the setting. The end-to-end encrypted messages can’t be read by anyone, including WhatsApp.
The current Apple vs FBI battle, and now the report about WhatsApp shows how heated the debated around encryption and law-enforcement agencies will get in time. As encryption becomes more and more mainstream across the apps and devices, the struggle for investigating agencies will be in getting access to the information.
US president Barack Obama recently weighed in on the whole controversy between Apple and FBI, calling for a more balanced stand over encryption.
“If technologically it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system where the encryption is so strong that there is no key, there’s no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer, how do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot?” he said. “What mechanisms do we have available to even do simple things like tax enforcement because if in fact you can’t crack that at all, government can’t get in, then everybody is walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket.”
But he pressed his point that a compromise that respected civil liberties and protected security had to be found. That solution would likely be a system with strong encryption and a secure “key” that is accessible to the “smallest number of people possible” for issues that were agreed to be important.
“Setting aside the specific case between the FBI and Apple … we’re going to have to make some decisions about how do we balance these respective risks,” Obama said. “My conclusion so far is you cannot take an absolutist view.”
Meanwhile Apple has indicated that it has no plans of complying with the FBI court order, and has found support from other tech companies including, Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, and Microsoft.
Apple’s senior vice-president of software engineering, Craig Federighi has called the court order asking the Cupertino-tech giant to unlock a terrorist’s iPhone, as one that takes device security back in time.
Apple CEO Tim Cook penned a long letter to their customers as soon as the order was given, calling it a dangerous precedent. “The government would have us remove security features and add new capabilities to the operating system, allowing a passcode to be input electronically. This would make it easier to unlock an iPhone by “brute force,” trying thousands or millions of combinations with the speed of a modern computer,” wrote Cook in his letter to Apple customers.
With agency inputs