WhatsApp, security at risk: the request of the U.S. government

The U.S. government wants to lower WhatsApp's security standards to make it easier to identify terrorists and criminals

In the coming years, WhatsApp may be less secure than it is now. Or at least that's what the U.S. government hopes, as it is starting its own personal fight against the end-to-end encryption systems used by apps to protect user privacy. To understand a little more about what's going on, we need to take a step back and explain how security works on WhatsApp.

The messaging app uses end-to-end encryption to protect users' messages. This is a special system that makes the content of the message indecipherable, even in case a hacker manages to get hold of it. WhatsApp uses one of the most advanced and efficient cryptography systems on the market, the same as Signal, considered by many to be the safest messaging app. Facebook, the company that owns WhatsApp, intends to bring end-to-end encryption to the company's other apps as well, including Facebook Messenger. Moreover, as announced by Mark Zuckerbeg, Facebook is increasing its investments in cybersecurity to improve the privacy of its platforms, following the Cambridge Analytica scandal that highlighted the flaws present on the social network.

And this is where the U.S. government, represented by William Barr, the Minister of Justice, comes in. According to reports from some U.S. newspapers, the politician would be ready to send a letter to Facebook inviting it to block investments in privacy and security, limiting the use of end-to-end encryption. Or in the case to create a backdoor on WhatsApp, which would allow investigators to monitor messages sent by criminals, terrorists and those who are guilty of  serious crimes. For those who don't know, a backdoor is a (secret) computer method that allows access to the inside of devices or software, bypassing normal security systems.

WhatsApp, what would change for users

The letter that the Minister of Justice will send to Facebook has been anticipated by some U.S. newspapers and has created a big debate in the world of technology. If Facebook really has to adjust its security standards to the new government diktats, user privacy and security would be lost on WhatsApp.

Hitherto, the messaging app has stood out as one of the most secure available for smartphones. Messages are encrypted and made inaccessible to hackers. And this is precisely the aspect that is causing the most discussion. According to the Minister of Justice, end-to-end encryption would complicate federal investigations, as happened in 2015 with the San Bernardino Massacre. The bomber's smartphone was locked with a security code that Apple never wanted to reveal, and in the end the FBI relied on private companies to obtain the PIN. The Attorney General doesn't want a repeat of such situations. Even at the expense of citizen-user privacy.

What are the risks

The tech world is questioning the feasibility of the U.S. government's proposal. Everyone agrees that giving investigators the ability to enter via a backdoor into a person's private WhatsApp account is a big danger. Not only for one's privacy: the same system could also be used by hackers to steal sensitive information from any person. We'll see what happens in the coming months and what Facebook's response to the U.S. government's demands will be.