Facebook moves to political hot seat with WhatsApp

Facebook moves to political hot seat with WhatsApp
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A Facebook subsidiary and its high-flying parent company could be the next tech firms in the encryption hot seat.

WhatsApp, the messaging application that Facebook bought for $19 billion just over two years ago, announced this week that all its users’ messages will be encrypted, end-to-end, by default.


That means that everything sent over the platform — whether it’s a video, a snippet of a voice recording, or a regular text message — is only accessible to the participants in the conversation.

The company can still access metadata, like who is messaging whom, and provide it to law enforcement. But WhatsApp will not be able to access the content of users’ messages or hand them over to the authorities.

That’s drawn notice in Washington.

“The WhatsApp and Facebook decision to add end-to-end encryption to all of WhatsApp’s services with no secure method to comply with valid search warrants continues a dangerous trend in the tech and data world,” Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonTim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls Opposition to refugees echoes one of America's most shameful moments White House defends CDC outreach to teachers union MORE (R-Ark.) said in a statement on Wednesday. “I strongly urge WhatsApp and Facebook to reevaluate their decision before they help facilitate another terrorist attack.”

Federal law enforcement officials have also expressed concern about the move.

James Baker, the general counsel to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said on Tuesday that the decision “presents us with a significant problem.”

The next day, speaking before a packed house at Kenyon College in Ohio, FBI Director James Comey struck a similar note — though he stopped short of condemning the company.

“WhatsApp announced that move on all of their services yesterday,” he said. “A billion people now communicating in ways that can’t be intercepted, even with a judge’s order.”

The firm’s move has at least one supporter in Washington: the persistently pro-privacy Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenBad jobs report amplifies GOP cries to end 0 benefits boost Putting a price on privacy: Ending police data purchases Overnight Health Care: Biden sets goal of at least one shot to 70 percent of adults by July 4 | White House to shift how it distributes unallocated vaccines to states MORE.

“This is a significant step to strengthen online security for millions of people worldwide,” he said in a statement on Wednesday. “Consumers are demanding the best possible security for their digital communications and WhatsApp is just the latest company moving to meet that demand.”

The company also seemed to offer its own preemptive defense of its decision when it announced the move on Tuesday.

“Recently there has been a lot of discussion about encrypted services and the work of law enforcement,” wrote CEO Jan Koum and his co-founder Brian Acton in a post announcing the change. “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.”

The immediate impact is simply that WhatsApp’s users — regardless of what device they use or where they use it — will now be able to send encrypted messages. But it also underscores the way the growing availability of encryption to consumers is expanding the scope of the debate over how law enforcement should deal with data secured by the technology.

It’s been a hot issue of late.

Lawmakers have grappling with the question of how much access law enforcement should have to encrypted data. A discussion draft of legislation from Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrBattle lines drawn over Biden's support for vaccine waivers FDA unveils plan to ban menthol cigarettes, flavored cigars The Hill's Morning Report - Biden to country: 'Turning peril into possibility' MORE (R-N.C.) and Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSenate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap Lawmakers react to guilty verdict in Chauvin murder trial: 'Our work is far from done' Senate Democrats call on Biden to restore oversight of semiautomatic and sniper rifle exports MORE (D-Calif.), which was obtained Thursday night by The Hill, has enraged many in the tech and privacy communities for requiring that companies provide “technical assistance” to authorities trying to break encryption.

The FBI also just backed off from a battle with Apple over whether the technology giant had to write code that would help the agency get into encrypted data on an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino attackers. The agency eventually said it had purchased a way to access the phone without Apple’s help.

WhatsApp, however, has a different audience than Apple, which could give its decision a different resonance.

“Apple is still a status symbol, right? It’s still a product that people want to show off,” said Daniel Castro, vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank. “It’s like the Prada bag. So, there’s a little bit of an eliteness to the debate when it was just about Apple. I think having it in WhatsApp makes it very mainstream."

WhatsApp is also especially popular around the world, giving a global audience access to strong encrypted messaging.

To be sure, WhatsApp is a separate corporate entity from Facebook — although Koum sits on Facebook’s board. The messaging platform started working with encryption before it was acquired.

But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave the encryption announcement his tacit endorsement when he called it “an important milestone for the WhatsApp community” and the company could yet get grilled by Congress or hounded by law enforcement over the issue.

Zuckerberg’s views on encryption were revealed, at least partially, when he backed Apple earlier this year.

“We’re sympathetic with Apple. We believe in encryption, we think that that’s an important tool,” he said. “I don’t think requiring backdoors with encryption is either going to be an effective way to increase security or is really the right thing to do for just the direction that the world is going to.”

Nathan Freitas, director of the Guardian Project and a fellow at the Berkman Center at Harvard University, said that companies like Facebook and Apple are “testing their political muscle” by building out encryption for users. And he said that Facebook’s decision to support encryption while looking to expand internationally was notable.

“The fact that Mark Zuckerberg can go to Beijing, and speak Mandarin and engage with the leaders of China while at the same time his company and companies he owns are implementing firewall busting technology and encryption technology that … makes it harder for them to be allowed into China,” he said, “I think it’s saying we’re going to engage with these places in the world but we’re not going to reduce the quality of our service or put our users at risk.”

And, it underscores something that may be more pressing for the policymakers dealing with the issue in the United States: encryption isn’t going anywhere.

“One thing that changes, I think,” said Castro, whose organization has been pro-encryption, “is that the constituents of encryption are not just some tech nerds or those guys out in Silicon Valley, it’s going to be everyday voters who say, ‘Wait I use this on my own phone, I see now that I want secure communication and I like that. I don’t want the government to take that away from me.’”