For most of the past six weeks, the biggest story out of Silicon Valley was Apple’s battle with the #FBI over a federal order to unlock the iPhone of a mass shooter. The company’s refusal touched off a searing debate over privacy and security in the digital age. Yesterday, at a small office in Mountain View, California, three guys made the scope of that enormous debate look kinda small.
Mountain View is home to WhatsApp, an online messaging that has grown into one of the world’s most important applications. Its enigmatic founders, Brian Acton, and Jan Koum, together with a high-minded coder and cryptographer who goes by the pseudonym Moxie Marlinspike, revealed that the company has added end-to-end encryption to every form of communication on its service.
Now this is getting interesting. Put clearly, this means using the latest version of #WhatsApp, the service will encrypt all messages, phone calls, photos, and videos moving among them without an employee of WhatsApp reading the data that’s sent across its network.
WhatsApp is, in practice, stonewalling the federal government, but it’s doing so on a larger front—one that spans roughly a billion devices. It sees itself as fighting the same fight as Apple and so many others.
According to reports from New York Times, the Justice Department was considering a court case against the company after a wiretap order (still under seal) ran into WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption. Joseph DeMarco, a former federal prosecutor who specializes in cyber crime made a statement
“The government doesn’t want to stop encryption, but the question is: what do you do when a company creates an encryption system that makes it impossible for court-authorized search warrants to be executed? What is the reasonable level of assistance you should ask from that company?”
WhatsApp declined to discuss any particular wiretap order. Frankly speaking, if “I” ,were “Whatsapp” I will not discuss either because online privacy must be protected against surveillance of all kinds.
As of now, the prospect of a court case doesn’t move Acton and Koum. Apple is still in a battle with the FBI. But we should begin to ask ourselves this fundamental question “How much can companies be compelled to do for the police?” It is high time privacy policies of companies be respected even by federal governments.