Whatsapp: your messages are encrypted, but is your data protected?

Last week, Whatsapp, the popular messaging app now owned by Facebook, announced that it would immediately encrypt the messages of all users- a whopping one billion people. Encryption means that only the user and the person they’re communicating with can read what is sent- or see their videos, listen to their calls, hear their voice messages, or view their photographs. Whatsapp has also told its users that they don’t store their messages on their servers, so no one will be able to access them in the future.

In an impressive demonstration of technical wizardry, this encryption has taken place automatically for all users, provided all parties are using the most recent version of Whatsapp. There is no way to turn it off.

In the light of the IPhone / FBI tussle, which resulted in the security services resorting to hiring a private tech company to help them “unlock” a mobile phone, Whatsapp has made its position clear.  Nobody else including Whatsapp itself, or indeed Facebook, will be able to see or hear your messages or documents.

This development is potentially ground-breaking and will reassure the public using Whatsapp that their messages can’t be illegally hacked or accessed by security services. As in the IPhone case however, it may be only  a matter of time. Ultimately no technology is impenetrable.

It’s worth noting that, whilst the content of Whatsapp messages may now be protected, other data still appears to be easily accessible – for example, the location of phones that messages are sent from can still be tracked, as can details of who messages are sent to and at what time. These details in themselves can be highly revealing. If the security services ask for that data, presumably it will be provided to them.