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Now WhatsApp Embroiled in the Encryption Debate

March 14, 2016 | By Editor 

At a time when the government and Apple Inc. are locking horns to win their respective stance on the encryption debate, a new angle to the controversy is forming as the U.S. government mulls on forcing WhatsApp to make its encryption codes accessible to the intel.

Last week, the New York Times reported that the U.S. Justice Department is devising a legal approach to force WhatsApp into giving investigation privileges to law enforcement agencies. The report came to light after a U.S. intel agency, that is investigating a criminal case (not related to terrorism) couldn’t get through WhatsApp’s encryption despite having a wiretap order from a federal judge against the messaging app company.

WhatsApp introduced end-to-end encryption to its services beginning in 2014, a few months after social media giant Facebook acquired it for nearly $16 billion, according to market reports. With the new encryption codes in place, no one except for the intended recipients could access messages being exchanged between them (or members of a group) – not even WhatsApp’s servers.

However, it’s not a new thing any more for law enforcement agencies to cry foul when it comes to encryption. The terrorist attack in Paris that took place in November 2015 had sparked a major controversy around the use of encryption by anti-social elements to perpetuate mass atrocities.

Just last month, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) exerted pressure on Apple to help them unlock the iPhone belonging to one of the shooters involved in 2015 San Bernardino shooting. When Apple denied to create a backdoor for FBI to access locked iPhones, investigators took matters to the federal court and the company was summoned to present its stance to the US House of Representatives committee.

Earlier this month, police in Brazil arrested an executive from Facebook when the company couldn’t comply with their orders to share a user’s information over a drug trafficking case.

WhatsApp has over a billion users spread across the globe, which – according to security industry’s experts – makes this issue a much bigger case with more serious implications regardless of which side wins the verdict. (In India WhatsApp is a top choice of chatting app among 96% of all users who use smartphones.) Because wiretapping phones have been at the heart of U.S. intelligence operations, cases like these hold the answers about the future of the encryption in legal investigations.

What’s more interesting is that the encryption standard that WhatsApp uses right now is a result of the U.S. government’s past funding into the Open Technology Fund, an organization that works to promote civil rights and surveillance-free exchange of communication in undemocratic countries. In 2014, the Fund granted $900,000 towards the development of Open Whisper Systems, the agency that WhatsApp later partnered with in order to upgrade its security measures.

Infosec experts argue that even though the U.S. government succeed in making companies like WhatsApp and Apple rewrite their codes, the issue with encryption will still taunt them because of it’s not just limited within the American domain, but is adopted by people and companies all across the globe. In its essence, SSL encryption is a maths that anyone can learn and easily apply to digital data and communication.

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