In an effort to relieve privacy concerns, the popular instant messaging service WhatsApp says it will encrypt all messages sent via its app.
WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum said in a blog published Tuesday that every conversation on the messaging service will have full end-to-end encryption protection, in a group or private chat. The encryption will ensure the only person able to read the message is the intended recipient.
“No one can see inside that message. Not cybercriminals. Not hackers. Not oppressive regimes. Not even us,” Koum wrote.
The move by WhatsApp to secure its users’ messages comes in a time of heightened sensitivity to cyber security and privacy, as the United States engages in a high-profile debate about the balance between the need for individual privacy and national security concerns.
According to WhatsApp, the encryption method works sort of like a lock and key. The only people with access to the digital lock and key are the message sender and recipient. And, for added protection, every message comes with a new lock and key, which not even WhatsApp has access to.
Koum said, “End-to-end encryption helps make communication via WhatsApp private ... like a face-to-face conversation.”
“We live in a world where more of our data is digitized than ever before. Every day we see stories about sensitive records being improperly accessed or stolen. And if nothing is done, more of people's digital information and communication will be vulnerable to attack in the years to come. Fortunately, end-to-end encryption protects us from these vulnerabilities,” Koum wrote.
Last month, the FBI requested that Apple unlock the iPhone belonging to one of the shooters in San Bernadino so the agency could look for potential evidence in the phone’s data.
Apple refused to unlock the phone for federal agents, citing privacy concerns, and the FBI proceeded to file a lawsuit against the technology firm. But the FBI was able to unlock the phone without help from Apple, and subsequently dropped the suit.
The back-and-forth between Apple and the FBI led to a heated national debate between those who said criminals are using encrypted messages to hide their tracks and those, like Koum, who said unlocking the phone would set a precedent for police to unlock phones in the future.
"For me, it's personal. I grew up in the USSR during Communist rule, and the fact that people couldn't speak freely is one of the reasons my family moved to the United States," wrote Koum.
According to Koum, more than one billion people use the app. WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $19 billion.