Mountain View is home to WhatsApp, an online messaging service now owned by tech giant Facebook, that has grown into one of the world’s most important applications. More than a billion people trade messages, make phone calls, send photos, and swap videos using the service. This means that only Facebook itself runs a larger self-contained communications network. And today, the enigmatic founders of WhatsApp, 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.
This means that if any group of people uses the latest version of WhatsApp—whether that group spans two people or ten—the service will encrypt all messages, phone calls, photos, and videos moving among them. And that’s true on any phone that runs the app, from iPhones to Android phones to Windows phones to old school Nokia flip phones. With end-to-end encryption in place, not even WhatsApp’s employees can read the data that’s sent across its network. In other words, WhatsApp has no way of complying with a court order demanding access to the content of any message, phone call, photo, or video traveling through its service. Like Apple, WhatsApp is, in practice, stonewalling the federal government, but it’s doing so on a larger front—one that spans roughly a billion devices.
“Building secure products actually makes for a safer world, (though) many people in law enforcement may not agree with that,” says Acton, who was employee number forty-four at Internet giant Yahoo before co-founding WhatsApp in 2009 alongside Koum, one of his old Yahoo colleagues. With encryption, Acton explains, anyone can conduct business or talk to a doctor without worrying about eavesdroppers. With encryption, he says, you can even be a whistleblower—and not worry.
The FBI and the Justice Department declined to comment for this story. But many inside the government and out are sure to take issue with the company’s move. In late 2014, WhatsApp encrypted a portion of its network. In the months since, its service has apparently been used to facilitate criminal acts, including the terrorist attacks on Paris last year. According to The New York Times, as recently as this month, 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.
“The government doesn’t want to stop encryption,” says Joseph DeMarco, a former federal prosecutor who specializes in cybercrime and has represented various law enforcement agencies backing the Justice Department and the FBI in their battle with Apple. “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 orders. But the prospect of a court case doesn’t move Acton and Koum. Espousing an article of faith that’s commonly held among Silicon Valley engineers—sometimes devoutly, sometimes casually—they believe that online privacy must be protected against surveillance of all kinds. “We’re somewhat lucky here in the United States, where we hope that the checks and balances hold out for many years to come and decades to come. But in a lot of countries you don’t have these checks and balances,” says Koum, dressed in his usual T-shirt and hoodie. Coming from Koum, this is not an academic point, as most of WhatsApp’s users are outside the US. “The argument can be made: Maybe you want to trust the government, but you shouldn’t because you don’t know where things are going to go in the future.”