WhatsApp Encrypts User Messages Following Google, Apple

Facebook Inc.’s WhatsApp is adding encryption so messages can’t be deciphered when stored or traveling between devices, boosting efforts by technology companies to thwart snooping by hackers and government spies.

WhatsApp, which was acquired by Facebook for $22 billion this year, is working with startup Open Whisper Systems to enact the change, the companies said yesterday. Open Whisper Systems said in a blog post that it has been working on encryption with the mobile-messaging service for the past six months.

A WhatsApp representative declined to comment beyond confirming the encryption.

Google Inc. and Apple Inc., among other technology companies, have also recently expanded their use of encryption on mobile communications. The moves have drawn praise from privacy advocates and criticism from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other law enforcement agencies for potentially hindering criminal investigations. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey are among those who have said that they glean essential information from the contents of phones seized in criminal investigations.

The expanding use of encryption is part of a backlash among technology companies to leaked documents from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, which showed the U.S.’s widespread spying on digital communications. Doubts about the security of their technologies could cause U.S. companies to forgo as much as $35 billion in revenue through 2016, according to the Washington-based Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a policy research group.

No Compromise

WhatsApp has said that after being acquired by Facebook, its opinion on the importance of its users’ data privacy wouldn’t be compromised. Chief Executive Officer Jan Koum has recounted memories of growing up in Ukraine and the Soviet Union during the 1980s, and the fear that every form of communication would be monitored by the KGB.

“Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA, and we built WhatsApp around the goal of knowing as little about you as possible,” Koum wrote in March.

Encryption isn’t fail-safe. While popular Internet services are using encryption to shield user data from outsiders, they are generally retaining the ability for themselves to scan the contents of e-mails, text messages, search queries and other information for use in targeted marketing.

Apple and Google have gone a step further recently with their encryption, saying new versions of smartphones that use the iOS and Android software will automatically encrypt data and make it impossible for the companies themselves to decipher photos, contact lists and other files.

Authorities may still be able to retrieve e-mails, text messages and other data transmitted between devices through court orders. The FBI’s Comey said last month that providers of new communications services should create a “front door” way for investigators to intercept data.

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