WhatsApp Adds Encryption for Chat Back-Ups, Closing a Loophole in its Privacy Systems
Facebook’s looking to expand WhatsApp’s message privacy options even further, by giving users the option to encrypt their message back-ups as well, adding another layer of security to their private WhatsApp communications.
Right now, all WhatsApp messages are end-to-end encrypted by default, which has become a key value proposition for the app amid rising concerns about digital data trails and maintaining privacy.
Soon, that will be extended to your data history as well – as explained by WhatsApp:
“Cloud-based services such as Google Drive and iCloud already allow people to back up their WhatsApp conversation history. WhatsApp does not have access to these backups, which are stored on the servers of the respective cloud-based storage providers. However, if users opt to activate end-to-end encrypted (E2EE) backups, neither WhatsApp nor the backup service provider will be able to view their backup or the encryption key used to protect their backup.”
No one knows how much of an effect the issue had on WhatsApp use, but it is clear that the company might benefit from a new tool like this to reaffirm its privacy position and to remind its customers that no one can read their private conversations, even those sent inside WhatsApp itself.
Functionally, being able to encrypt your message back-ups probably doesn’t add much for regular users. But then again, as noted by TechCrunch, gaining access to WhatsApp chat data via third-party workarounds has thus far been the only way for government and law enforcement agencies to peer into the WhatsApp network.
Law enforcement agencies across the world have for years been able to access suspicious people’ WhatsApp conversations by tapping into unencrypted WhatsApp chat backups stored on Google and Apple servers, as reported by the New York Times.
Therefore, the existing backup solutions, which depend on third-party providers, decrease the overall security of WhatsApp conversations, a flaw that Facebook is currently working to address. This will certainly raise the ire of a number of groups who have expressed their objections to Facebook’s plans to further restrict access to its chat services.
Back In October 2019, representatives from the US, UK and Australia co-signed an open letter to Facebook which called on the company to abandon its full messaging encryption plans, arguing that it would:
“…put our citizens and societies at risk by severely eroding our ability to detect and respond to illegal content and activity, such as child sexual exploitation and abuse, terrorism, and foreign adversaries’ attempts to undermine democratic values and institutions, preventing the prosecution of offenders and the protection of victims,” the authors write. ”
The governments of each area demanded that Facebook give, at the at least, ‘backdoor access’ for official investigations, a request that Facebook has consistently failed to fulfill.
This is what has prompted authorities to seek alternative methods, such as tapping into third-party backups – and with Facebook now moving to cut off that as well, it is possible that there will be a new upsurge in opposition to the company’s plans, as well as renewed calls for restrictions on the company’s operations.
A key focus of the concern on this front is the potential of such options to shield child traffickers, with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children arguing that any move to further restrict access to such by law enforcement increases the potential for use of these platforms among perpetrator groups.
Despite the fact that private messaging is at the forefront of child sexual exploitation, the current discussion about end-to-end encryption has the potential to leave children defenseless at a time when they are most vulnerable.
As of right now, this is the most persuasive and significant argument in opposition to the relocation. By enabling complete encryption across all of its messaging applications, Facebook would effectively conceal any conversations between predators and those who would want to use such systems for child exploitation, which may ultimately lead to an increase in the amount of child exploitation occurring.
But at the same time, the wider movement for greater online privacy continues to gather pace, with individuals more interested in finding ways to prevent their private conversations from being monitored by others.
It’s a difficult balancing act, and there are compelling arguments on both sides, but it appears that Facebook is pressing ahead, with the company repeatedly stating that it is working to integrate all of its messaging tools (Messenger, Instagram Direct, and WhatsApp), as well as to expand the number of encryption options available across its platform.
There is no definitive right answer in this case, but it is interesting to note the ongoing debate, which may eventually force Facebook to reverse course, or change its approach, if regulators from one of its major usage regions decide to make a more definitive push back against the social media giant.
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