WhatsApp Just Made It Impossible To Hand Your Messages Over To Police

Which do you value more -- privacy or security?
Dado Ruvic/Reuters

The world's most popular messaging app just took a major stand against the probing eyes of law enforcement and hackers alike.

WhatsApp, the texting app owned by Facebook, enabled end-to-end encryption for all of its users Tuesday, essentially meaning that messages sent via the app cannot be intercepted or viewed by anyone other than the intended recipient.

The company will not have the technical capability to turn your communications over to law enforcement.

"The idea is simple: when you send a message, the only person who can read it is the person or group chat that you send that message to," WhatsApp said in a blog post Tuesday. "No one can see inside that message. Not cybercriminals. Not hackers. Not oppressive regimes. Not even us."

WhatsApp describes the technology in greater detail in a security document on its website. Encryption has long been available for text messages sent on WhatsApp, but now every communication is similarly protected -- "all messages, phone calls, photos and videos," as Wired writes.

If you're wondering why this is a big deal, look no further than the recent scandal over a locked iPhone. U.S. investigators asked for Apple's help to get into a device linked to the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, last year. Apple refused, but it was technically possible for it to create a solution that would have allowed entry into the locked iPhone -- as investigators later proved when they hacked into the phone without Apple.

To some, that case was fundamentally about whether a tech company should have the power to lock the government out of its products. That's a sticky problem when those products are used by criminal suspects to communicate.

By guaranteeing end-to-end encryption, WhatsApp is essentially locking up user information and throwing away the key. No matter what a government demands, the company won't be able to turn over your personal data.

This doesn't necessarily mean that governments are powerless. For one thing, if officials can access a user's device, they can, of course, open the app and see the user's messages. Brazil has also butted heads with WhatsApp in recent months: Officials required the app to shut down for a brief period in December over a criminal case, and they arrested a Facebook exec last month because WhatsApp was unable to provide information connected to a drug trafficking investigation.

At the time, a spokesman for WhatsApp provided a response that the company will surely repeat in the future, now that encryption is being used across the entire platform: “WhatsApp cannot provide information we do not have.”

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