WhatsApp switches on end-to-end encryption for all messages

Facebook’s WhatsApp has completed the roll out of end-to-end encryption for the messaging app to protect all content transmitted between contacts.

WhatsApp introduced end-to-end encryption for messages on its Android app in 2014 with the help of Open Whisper Systems (OWS) and its Signal Protocol. At the time however the message app didn’t include protection for group chat, video or photo messages.

Today, WhatsApp and Open Whisper Systems announced that all content shared on WhatsApp is protected and can only be read by the sender and recipient of a message. This covers chats, group chats, attachments voice notes, and voice calls across Android and iOS, as well as Windows Phone, Nokia S40, Nokia S60, Blackberry, and BB10.
The completion of the project may stoke an already heated debate in the US and internationally over encryption, which centred on Apple’s fight with the FBI over the locked iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters.

Prior to that skirmish, Apple was also criticised by US law enforcement over its iMessage system, which also uses end-to-end encryption that only the end-user can unlock.

Attackers may still be able to see the metadata of an encrypted message, such as who it was from and to, but WhatsApp claims it will not be able to assist unlock the contents of the message.

Like many in the tech industry, WhatsApp CEO and co-founder Jan Koum, is against calls by governments for mandatory backdoors to bypass encryption. He reiterated that stance today.

“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,” he said in a blog post.

WhatsApp’s nearly one billion users will not have to do anything to enable encryption as it will be on by default on the latest version of the app. Users will see a message that states “messages you send to this chat and calls are now secured with end-to-end encryption”, with a link to additional information.

According to Marlinspike, the encryption system is built to resist so-called downgrade attacks, which exploit backward compatibility and can be used to force a session on to an older, less secure protocol. To this end, users will be prevented from sending messages in plaintext even if they attempt to install a version of the app that is not fully capable of end-to-end encryption.

Users will also have the option to verify the keys being used by contacts in order that each party can confirm that a third party isn’t intercepting communications.
WhatsApp has also published a white paper offering a technical explanation of the system available on its new security page.

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