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WhatsApp’s move to protect user privacy: What does this signal?

In a move following a hotly-debated international issue of how much access should law enforcers in users’ online communications, WhatsApp has announced a complete end-to-end encryption which allows messages to only be accessible between sender and recipient.

Now, when over a billion people use the latest version of the app, every call, message, photo, video, file and voice message sent will be encrypted by default, including group chats.

In light of the recent high-profile clash between Apple and the FBI over an encrypted iPhone linked to one of the shooters in the San Bernardino terrorist attack, such an update strengthens the private messaging app’s stance on the privacy of its users.

According to Rajeev Bala, co-founder and CEO, Predator Digital the scale of this end to end encryption exercise is impressive.

To give an illustration of the scale, Apple uses end to end encryption for messages that travel over iMessage, which is only available on iPhones. There are about 800 million iPhones sold, but taking into consideration that some of these devices may not still be in use and not everyone uses iMessage, the number comes down considerably. Another thing to note is that when users back up their iMessages to iCloud, the end to end encryption is effectively useless.

“On the other hand, WhatsApp has brought end to end encryption to its billion users with a team of just 15 engineers! That is not something to be scoffed at. I am also very interested how this will play out for Telegram (competitor of WhatsApp), which has a self-described focus on security. End to end encryption in Telegram is not by default and doesn’t exist for group messaging.”

While from a customer’s point of view, WhatsApp’s recent move to strengthen encryption is a welcome news, it is yet to be seen how the US government, the Justice Department and FBI will react to the move, according to Prantik Mazumdar, managing partner at Happy Marketer.

What also remains to be seen is how does this impact WhatsApp’s potential plan of serving targeted ads on their platform since this encryption may make it difficult for the ads to be contextually relevant.

“We must remember that two years ago Facebook spent a whopping US$22 Billion to acquire WhatsApp and its a matter of time before they start monetising the platform and ads are a likely source of revenue for them, similar to what they did with Instagram,” he said.

And if ads are not contextually relevant to the messages being exchanged, it may not be a big differentiator and WhatsApp’s value can diminish.

As more and more people use their mobile devices for daily communication, experience sharing, and commerce, it is both the responsibility as as well as in the interest of mobile device manufacturers and software/application providers (e.g. WhatsApp in this instance) to provide watertight security/encryption to prevent hackers from accessing user data, added Prakash Kamdar, CEO of Isobar Singapore.

“The challenge and debate centers around whether it is lawful and morally right for a few in the law enforcement community to be given backdoor access to encrypted data for the purposes of national and citizen security,” he said, adding that Apple and Facebook understand and appreciate governments wanting to seek such access for very legitimate reasons.

Their struggle however lies with:

  1. Basic human rights of privacy.
  2. Once one person has backdoor access, it is entirely possible for others (with not so good intentions) to gain the same access.

Kamdar’s personal opinion is that it is not so much a question of whether or not backdoor access should be granted to relevant officials within the law enforcement community, it is more a question of how the mega tech companies and governments can work together to prevent rogue criminals from gaining the same access, as challenging as it is.

“It would be unreasonable to expect our respective governments to protect our lives, as we do, and yet insist that they not be given the tools and information to do so in the interests of personal privacy. Not an easy problem to solve by any stretch (as there are very valid arguments and counter arguments to support each side of the fence) however one that needs to be solved regardless as we live in unprecedented times,” he said.

Nick Pan, regional head of planning and strategy at VML Singapore, thinks the move is a great way for instant messaging giants to set an example for the digital world.

“To the man on the street, the strengthening of WhatsApp’s encryption is good news, but I doubt the average user understands what has changed technically. The real impact I believe is that with this move, the big boys are setting an example for the rest of the digital world. Hackers will still hack and it just means they will take slightly longer.” he said.

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