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WhatsApp Adds Encryption to Secure Text Messages

Half a billion WhasApp users will eventually get strong encryption by default.

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If you’ve been worried just a bit about who may be able to read your text messages, the latest move from WhatsApp could help ease your concerns.

In what is likely the largest deployment of strong encryption technology ever, the Facebook-owned messaging service added the ability to encrypt the billions of messages sent by its half-billion users each day, making them virtually unreadable to would-be eavesdroppers, including government agencies. WhatsApp has added encryption technology called TextSecure developed by Open Whisper Systems, a team of open source software developers. The move was announced in an Open Whisper blog post.

The latest version of WhatsApp for Android includes the technology for one-to-one messages. Support for group chats and media messages is still in development, as is support for other mobile platforms, like iOS. “We have a ways to go until all mobile platforms are fully supported, but we are moving quickly towards a world where all WhatsApp users will get end-to-end encryption by default,” the firm said.

The addition of strong encryption will likely add some new threads to the larger policy discussion around the use of strong encryption by consumers in their everyday communications. Last month, FBI Director James Comey strongly criticized Apple for implementing strong encryption on its iMessage platform, which runs on iPhones, iPads and Macs. In a speech, Comey said the agency isn’t “always able to access the evidence we need to prosecute crime and prevent terrorism.” He asked Apple and Google to reverse their stance on baking strong encryption into their messaging products, and also called for new laws to facilitate wiretapping.

One interesting encryption technique that TextSecure employs is the generation of a new key for every message, a technique called Forward Secrecy. That means even if eavesdroppers manage to break the key on one message, they have to go through the trouble to break the key for each additional message to capture an entire conversation. Typically conversations are encrypted to a single key exchanged between two users.

WhatsApp is used more widely outside the U.S. than within it, meaning its addition of strong encryption is likely to rankle law enforcement agencies in other countries, and of course the U.S. National Security Agency.

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