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WhatsApp Security: Is It Really Useful for Real People?

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“What’s the number one reason why you use WhatsApp?”

When you ask WhatsApp users this question, you’ll definitely get a wide range of answers. Some use the popular messaging app since it allows them to have a wide reach and communicate with most of their friends and family. Others, meanwhile, choose to use this app to reduce their expenses on voice calls and SMS and save more money. Still others like WhatsApp because of its wide range of features, including video calling and file sharing.

One answer you might not get too often is this: “I like to use WhatsApp because it’s highly secure”. But just because you don’t hear it too often doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Attack on End-to-End Encryption

Unfortunately, this seems to be something that UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd has not realized. In an editorial piece on The Telegraph in July 31, Rudd pointed out that “real people” use WhatsApp because it’s easy to use and comes with loads of features — not because of its excellent security.

Because of this, she noted, the British government should be allowed to read people’s text messages. The unspoken argument is that, since people aren’t too concerned about security, anyway, they probably wouldn’t mind if their private messages were to be read by the authorities.

Granted, if this would happen, it wouldn’t be for selfish reasons: the UK has experienced serious online security threats in the past years. One of the biggest attacks involved a nationwide hacking that affected numerous NHS hospitals and took them offline, putting the country’s healthcare system through the fritz. To prevent this from happening, the government want to have access to private messages (such as those that go through WhatsApp) to monitor conversations among hackers and catch them before it’s too late.

Not the Only Solution

However, taking down the end-to-end encryption found in WhatsApp and other applications is not the only solution to cyber attacks. In fact, as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg points out, it would actually be detrimental.

WhatsApp’s security relies on fully encrypting messages, which prevents anyone aside from the sender and the intended recipient to receive them. However, Sandberg reveals that the app’s metadata is not encrypted. This means that, while WhatsApp can’t see what person A said to Person B, it can confirm that Person A sent a message to Person B. WhatsApp’s metadata can be shared with governments, and they can use these information to widen their investigation and monitor suspicious personalities.

If WhatsApp agrees to do what Secretary Rudd wants, it won’t necessarily mean that criminals would be captured ASAP. Cyber attackers are not stupid; once they get wind that WhatsApp has become less secure, they’ll move their operations to apps that don’t share their metadata with any government. This can make it harder for the authorities to track their movements.

Real People Value Security

Another point that has been repeatedly brought up online: “real people” appreciate WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption.

As Sky News technology correspondent Tom Cheshire points out, “Security is not why we choose WhatsApp or iMessage, but it’s part of the package.” This is also the same reason why people buy Apple products: they love the sleek, minimalist design and exciting features, but they also like the fact that Apple is committed to maintaining tight security.

And it’s not just ordinary people; many organizations also rely on WhatsApp. According to senior researcher Cynthia M. Wong, Human Rights Watch use WhatsApp to shield their communications from abusive regimes and protect their contacts. In her own words, “If we can’t guarantee the security of our communications, we can’t do our work”.

What do you think about WhatsApp and end-to-end encryption? Share your thoughts below!