What the recent Facebook/WhatsApp announcements could mean

Ever since Facebook acquired WhatsApp (in 2014) I have wondered how long it would take before we found that our supposedly “end to end encrypted” messages were being mined by Facebook for its own purposes.

It has been a while coming, but I think it is now clear that end to end encryption in WhatsApp isn’t really the case, and will definitely be less secure in the future.

Over a year ago, Gregorio Zanon described in detail why it was that end-to-end encryption didn’t really mean that Facebook couldn’t snoop on all of the messages you exchanged with others. There’s always been this difference between one-to-one messages and group messages in WhatsApp, and how the encryption is handled on each. For details of how it is done in WhatsApp, see the detailed write-up from April 2016.

Now we learn that Facebook is going to be relaxing “end to end encrypted”. As reported in Schneier, who quotes Kalev Leetaru,

Facebook’s model entirely bypasses the encryption debate by globalizing the current practice of compromising devices by building those encryption bypasses directly into the communications clients themselves and deploying what amounts to machine-based wiretaps to billions of users at once.

 


 

Some years ago, I happened to be in India, and at a loose end, and accompanied someone who went to a Government office to get some work done. The work was something to do with a real-estate transaction. The Government office was the usual bustle of people, hangers-on, sweat, and the sounds of people talking on telephones, and the clacking of typewriters. All of that I was used to, but there was something new that I’d not seen before.

At one point documents were handed to one of the ‘brokers’ who was facilitating the transaction. He set them out on a table, and proceeded to take pictures. Aadhar Card (an identity card), PAN Card (tax identification), Drivers License, … all quickly photographed – and this made my skin crawl (a bit). Then these were quickly sent off to the document writer, sitting three floors down, just outside the building under a tree at his typewriter, generating the documents that would then be certified.

And how was this done: WhatsApp! Not email, not on some secure server with 256 bit encryption and security, just WhatsApp! India in general has a rather poor security practice, and this kind of thing is commonplace, people are used to it.

So now that Facebook says they are going to be intercepting and decrypting all messages and potentially sending them off to their own servers, guess what information they could get their hands on!

It seems pointless to expect that US regulators will do anything to protect consumers ‘privacy’ given that they’re pushing for weakening communication security themselves, and it seems like a foregone conclusion that Facebook will misuse this data, given that they have no moral compass (at least not one that is functioning).

This change has far-reaching implications and only time will tell how badly it will turn out but given Facebook’s track record, this isn’t going to end well.

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