'Our Worst Fears Were Right': Amid Privacy Fight, DOJ Targets WhatsApp

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'Our Worst Fears Were Right': Amid Privacy Fight, DOJ Targets WhatsApp

Government is demanding the messaging service build code to decrypt secure communications in criminal investigation

The DOJ's wiretap is demanding that WhatsApp hand over encrypted information, which the company does not have the software to access. (Photo: Luis/flickr/cc)

The U.S. government has a new target in its war against privacy: WhatsApp.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has obtained a wiretap order to acquire communications sent in real time through the Facebook-owned messaging service, which began implementing end-to-end encryption in 2014, the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said on Sunday in response to reporting from the New York Times.

It's the latest development in a growing fight over privacy rights and national security as the government continues its attempt to force Apple to decrypt the iPhone contents of suspected San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook. Apple has resisted the order on the grounds that it would violate users' privacy rights and set a dangerous precedent for government power.

As EFF staff attorney Nate Cardozo wrote in a blog post on Sunday, the move against WhatsApp "proves that our worst fears were right."

Thus far, the wiretap—which the DOJ obtained for an ongoing criminal investigation—is demanding that WhatsApp hand over encrypted information, which the company does not have the software to access. That means the DOJ has not yet decided whether to pursue an additional court order to force WhatsApp to build decryption code, Cardozo said.

"Presumably, that second order would look similar to the San Bernardino order and direct WhatsApp to write code that would break its own encryption and allow it to provide plain text in response to the wiretap order," he wrote.

However, reporting by the Guardian on Monday indicates that WhatsApp has no plans of backing down. The company will reportedly expand its security measures within the coming weeks so that voice calls will also be protected by encryption.

The Guardian writes:

WhatsApp already offers Android and iPhone users encrypted messaging. In the coming weeks, it plans to offer users encrypted voice calls and encrypted group messages, two people familiar with the matter said. That would make WhatsApp, which is free to download,very difficult for authorities to tap.

Unlike many encrypted messaging apps, WhatsApp hasn’t pushed the security functions of the service as a selling point to users. [Jan] Koum, its founder, has said users should be able to expect that security is a given, not a bonus feature.

Facebook, Google, and Snapchat have also made plans to increase privacy technology in their respective messaging systems, according to the reporting.

The upgrades were underway long before the iPhone battle began. However, Koum expressed support for Apple after CEO Tim Cook announced the company would fight the decryption order in court, writing on his Facebook page, "Our freedom and liberty are at stake."

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