WhatsApp has announced that it is currently switching all its users to secure end-to-end encryption. It is now using a state-of-the-art protocol that was developed for the Free Software app TextSecure. This cryptographic protocol fulfills most desired security properties and is simple to use at the same time. The encryption happens without the users even noticing it.
Thanks to Edward Snowden, the world’s population now knows about the reality of ubiquitous surveillance and is asking for private communications. It is a good sign that companies who previously have assisted surveillance are now helping to fight it.
WhatsApp has understood that the value of real private communication outweighs the value to be gained from reading people’s messages. Let’s hope that others will understand this as well.
Trust and Federation
This bold move will improve WhatsApp’s image significantly, provided that it doesn’t fail again badly in security as it already has many times in the past. The list of these failures is long and it remains to be seen if the encryption was implemented in a way that can’t be broken. Also, we have to trust that there are no backdoors built in.
Independent reviews of WhatsApp’s code are still not possible, because – contrary to TextSecure – the WhatsApp itself remains proprietary and closed. Also, only one part of TextSecure’s clever protocol was implemented: the encryption. The other interesting part was left out: federation.
Federation essentially means opening a service to competitors by allowing them to connect their products to it. This way you can choose the app you like most and still chat with all your friends instead of being forced to use only WhatsApp. This works just like email. The protocol of email is an Open Standard and allows for many independent email providers. You can choose the one you trust or can even be your own provider if you like.
But will it federate?
Opening up its service for federation unfortunately does not have the same positive benefit for WhatsApp’s image as encrypting its messages. It would even endanger the monopolistic ambitions it has, trying to become the world’s messenger.
I would rather see the world’s messaging service in the hands of society than in control of one single company. As much as I like to see WhatsApp open up, it will not happen. Opening up is just not in its interest and the public is not even asking for it.
The only way I see federation for WhatsApp happening is with an even bigger monopoly and a powerful cartel authority that forces WhatsApp to open up its service to competitors.