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WhatsApp encryption finally gives people the privacy they once enjoyed

Sahil Mohan Gupta
Sahil Mohan GuptaApr 06, 2016 | 21:40

WhatsApp encryption finally gives people the privacy they once enjoyed

Back in the good old days, before the internet came along, a conversation between two people could remain private. Even if it happened over the humble landline. That notion of "communication" went out of the window in the internet age.

Governments on many levels could now have access to your personal communication. More importantly, the service provider almost certainly knew what was being communicated - written or said - in the message.

Even with WhatsApp this was largely true until a little over 24 hours ago.

To paraphrase the FBI, with the flip of a switch, WhatsApp has gone dark. What has really happened is that your conversations are now truly private.

Essentially, if you have downloaded the latest version of WhatsApp on your phone, your communications should be encrypted. However, both the recipients need to be on the latest version of the app. If that's the case, the chat window will show a message saying end-to-end encryption is enabled.

Security agencies will argue this is a rogue move on part of WhatsApp because now the Facebook-owned service itself doesn't have the capability to read the data that it carries. This means it can't help security agencies when they want access.

Truth told, this is the way communications were meant to be. If you have a one-on-one conversation with someone, you want it to remain private. That's the point of it, and in this day and age, where security cameras are dime-a-dozen,  it has become near impossible.

When you are being intimate with your spouse, it is a private event. Conversations, most conversations, are also meant to be private. But till now, they weren't because the service providers could gather what was being communicated.

In the case of WhatsApp's encryption update, they cannot. A service used by more than a billion people has now brought the curtains down and closed the window.And it is not a bad thing because this is the way communication was meant to be. Technology brought in the unnatural element.

If security agencies claim that WhatsApp will further facilitate coordination of terrorist attacks like Brussels blasts, then they have buried their head in the sand. If that's their argument, then they should ban the production of kitchen knives because they can also be used to stab and kill a person.

They should also stop the production of mosquito repellants because they can be used to poison a human being.

And yes, they should also ban the production of guns, which are solely created to harm humans. Perhaps, they should be looking at these things before the knives are out for WhatsApp.

Encryption is essentially good because it makes people less vulnerable to hacking. In oppressive regimes like China, if dissent is expressed over a communication platform, the government can't play Big Brother and jail citizens. We have been down this path before, when the Chinese government allegedly hacked Gmail accounts of its citizens and they were jailed and prosecuted upon.

And the latest WhatsApp encryption truly makes such communication private. It is the most ubiquitous communication platform on the planet.

In this digital age, where increasingly our communications aren't personal, and over the internet, this was lacking. That element of privacy is back.

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Pandora's box for security

It is also important to understand that tech companies have increasingly become thick-headed about encryption and there is little a government can do about it.

As much as we live within the silos of our governments, the internet and the globalised economy play the equaliser.

WhatsApp may operate out of a small office in Mountain View, California, but it serves more people out of the US than inside it. Its popularity can be credited to markets like India, not just the US.

Even for tech giants like Apple, Google and Microsoft, this holds true. They don't have an allegiance to a particular country. They don't want to be part of the polity. They make money because of their users, and if encryption is the right thing for their users,  they will implement it.

Apple's recent problems with the FBI is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to encryption because it pertained to data access on the iPhone. While Apple has sold 800 million iPhones over the years, there is no way to know how many are actually in use.

WhatsApp, on the other hand, is not only used by a billion people, but it also recently transferred 20 billion inbound messages and 44 billion outbound messages in 24 hours.

With 64 billion exchanges among a billion people just in 24 hours, WhatsApp's decision to enable the end-to-end 256 bit encryption will open a Pandora's box, which most governments wouldn't have ever contended with.

Last updated: April 06, 2016 | 21:40
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