In the past months, Apple made it very clear that it did not want to help the FBI unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooting suspects.
WhatsApp, the world's largest messaging application, took it one step further: It's not that the company doesn't want to help, but it simply cannot.
WhatsApp has more than a billion users sending messages, making calls, and sharing photos and video, and this week it announced that it has fully completed end-to-end encryption of every form of communication shared on its app. This means the only person that can see a message is the person or group you send it to.
No one else.
"No one can see inside that message. Not cybercriminals. Not hackers. Not oppressive regimes. Not even us," WhatsApp founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton wrote on their blog. "End-to-end encryption helps make communication via WhatsApp private — sort of like a face-to-face conversation."
And no loopholes or backdoor decryptions. That would defeat the purpose, WhatsApp says. Instead, the communications app has simply encrypted all communications sent from any kind of mobile device, from iPhones and Android phones to flip phones.
Even if the FBI came calling, WhatsApp has no way of complying with a request to see communications transferred through the app. It's just not possible.
WhatsApp just made privacy more mainstream than ever before
WhatsApp is surely not the first or only messaging system to encrypt communications. Even Apple, which WhatsApp and its parent company Facebook supported in the fight with the FBI, encrypts messages through its texting platform iMessage.
But iMessage is between iPhones only. WhatsApp operates on a much larger scale. As Wired reported, "WhatsApp is pushing it much farther into the mainstream than anyone else" — a project it committed to back when NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden went public with the government's surveillance programs.
"Building secure products actually makes for a safer world, (though) many people in law enforcement may not agree with that," Acton told Wired.
WhatsApp has been encrypting messages since 2013, later partnering with Open Whisper Systems to implement this end-to-end encryption protocol on all forms of communication from texts to videos in late 2014, which has taken more than a year to complete.
We already know terrorists use encrypted messaging apps to communicate
Although the US federal government has yet to respond to WhatsApp's announcement, end-to-end encryption is likely a big headache for agencies that want every tool possible to track terror attacks.
Significantly, officials have already documented terrorists' use of encrypted messaging. In the Paris attacks, investigators said the terrorists used WhatsApp's messaging system, among others, for a period of time before the attacks.
But WhatsApp wants to make it clear that encryption isn't only a tool for the bad guys. WhatsApp is an internationally used communication tool. In some countries, the government and law enforcement agencies are the bad guys, the founders wrote on their blog:
Encryption is one of the most important tools governments, companies, and individuals have to promote safety and security in the new digital age. Recently there has been a lot of discussion about encrypted services and the work of law enforcement. While we recognize the important work of law enforcement in keeping people safe, efforts to weaken encryption risk exposing people's information to abuse from cybercriminals, hackers, and rogue states.
"We’re somewhat lucky here in the United States, where we hope that the checks and balances hold out for many years to come and decades to come. But in a lot of countries you don’t have these checks and balances," Koum told Wired. "The argument can be made: Maybe you want to trust the government, but you shouldn’t because you don’t know where things are going to go in the future."
And this is personal for Koum, a Ukrainian-born Silicon Valley transplant.
"The desire to protect people's private communication is one of the core beliefs we have at WhatsApp, and for me, it's personal. I grew up in the USSR during communist rule and the fact that people couldn't speak freely is one of the reasons my family moved to the United States," Koum wrote in the blog post.