While much of the nation's attention has been focused on the FBI's tussle with Apple over a locked iPhone, there's been another silent struggle over encryption being waged between WhatsApp and the United States Justice Department. As the New York Times reports, the Facebook-owned messaging app ran into trouble when a federal judge approved a "wiretap" for WhatsApp phone calls and messages, only to find WhatsApp's end-to-end encryption renders the messages as mere gibberish.
WhatsApp implemented the encryption system for Android devices in 2014 and for iOS devices in 2015, and since then only the intended recipients can read the messages that pass through WhatsApp's system. The fight so far hasn't reached the courts, and the government's reportedly still deciding whether to pursue legal action as it's done with Apple or to hold off. Indeed, we only know about it thanks to reports from anonymous sources who spoke with the Times.
Some of those sources reportedly think the repercussions of legal action could be huge, as it would force an update to wiretapping laws that really haven't changed since the days when most of us communicated overly easily accessed landlines. The controversy may even end up dwarfing Apple's troubles, particularly if it ends up dragging in Facebook proper, which has already expressed support for Apple's dogged commitment to privacy.
Such a conflict may be inevitable. Just two weeks ago, Facebook already found itself under fire for WhatsApp's encryption commitment in Brazil, where authorities arrested Diego Dzodan, Facebook's vice president for operations in Latin America. Courts there argued that the two companies effectively ignored an order to comply with a court order to provide data as a part of a local criminal investigation. As we reported in December, Brazilian officials even went to the extreme of shutting down WhatsApp for 12 hours (down from an intended 48), likely over the same issue.
That case goes back in 2013, but with the new encryption policy in place, WhatsApp couldn't share recent data even if they wanted to.
WhatsApp has pursued a strong anti-surveillance policy largely through the efforts of founder Jan Koum, who grew up in Soviet-era Ukraine. It's certainly not the only app to support formidable encryption practices, but it's a prime target since almost a billion active users chat through WhatsApp on a monthly basis, especially in markets outside the US.
Nothing is known about the case behind the court-ordered wiretapping aside from reports that it has nothing to do with terrorism.