WhatsApp: 5 facts about end-to-end encryption of the app | Safety

WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption is a protection feature that ensures that only the sender and receiver of a message have access to it – whether in private or group chats. The security system – which is applied to texts, media and calls – works by means of encoded keys and prevents even the messenger from being able to view the interactions carried out. Thus, the confidentiality and integrity of the crossed data is ensured by the application, available on both Android and iPhone (iOS) cell phones. To learn more about end-to-end encryption, here are five fun facts about the function.

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WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption allows only conversation participants to gain access to content — Photo: Luciana Maline/TechTudo

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How does end-to-end encryption work and what does it do?

End-to-end encryption is a security mechanism that protects data available across different services. It is called “end-to-end” because only the sender and recipient involved in the process can access the shared information – such as texts, photos, voice calls, videos, etc.

To ensure this protection, the technology works through keys – that is, sequences of numbers that, when read by algorithms, encode the information exchanged. Then, in the process of sending and receiving the texts, one of the keys encrypts the data (sender), and the other decrypts it (receiver).

Each of the parties involved has a type of key: one public and one private, and only one of them can unlock the other. So, when a message is sent, it is encrypted with a private key, and can only be opened – that is, decrypted – with the public key of the person receiving it.

It is worth mentioning that these codes are renewed with each new message so there is no risk of someone gaining access to one of the keys and being able to retrieve the history. Therefore, not even hackers, governments, or even WhatsApp itself can view the data.

Conversations and calls are protected with end-to-end encryption by WhatsApp — Photo: Reproduction/Flávia Fernandes

2. Is there a way to disable end-to-end encryption?

WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption is done through the Signal protocol, an open-source system that implements the technology in the messenger. The service is activated on the platform automatically for anyone who starts using the app. For this reason, it is not possible to disable end-to-end encryption.

On the other hand, there is the possibility to confirm the use of technology in a conversation by opening it and touching the name of the contact or group. To do this, just press the option “Cryptography” and then a tab will open. In it, two codes will be displayed: a QR code and another of 60 digits. These ciphers are not the keys used to encrypt the conversation, but a visible version of the chat’s security confirmation.

WhatsApp provides encryption to protect individual conversations, group chats and chats with companies — Photo: Reproduction/Flávia Fernandes

3. When and why did the app start having?

End-to-end encryption was added to WhatsApp in 2016. The change came after a series of leaks of confidential data took place at the time, across different apps and platforms.

“Every day we see stories about confidential records being improperly accessed or stolen. If nothing is done, more people’s information and digital communications will be vulnerable to attacks in the years to come. Fortunately, end-to-end encryption protects us from these vulnerabilities.”

In addition, in the period, the vice president of Meta in Latin America had been arrested in Brazil for not having passed on information exchanged on WhatsApp between suspects investigated for drug trafficking. After the episode, the messenger team implemented the encryption system, which would guarantee not only the protection of the user, but also the company – since even WhatsApp would no longer have access to the data and information exchanged in the app.

4. What impact does the use of WhatsApp have in courtrooms and police investigations?

The decision for encryption has generated and continues to generate controversy, as it prevents law enforcement authorities from being able to intercept data that could be useful for criminal investigations. Considering that WhatsApp is a means of communication widely used in several countries, the information collected through it could, in theory, serve as evidence in legal proceedings.

In Brazil, for example, the messenger was blocked four times. The first time this happened was in 2015 and the other three in 2016. On all occasions, the blocks occurred precisely because of the company’s refusal to provide information for police investigations.

In the latest decision, the judge responsible for the case – which took place in Sergipe – demanded that WhatsApp provide a technological solution that would allow the authorities to track messages in real time – as happens in wiretaps, for example. The blockade decision was overturned after intervention by the Federal Supreme Court.

End-to-end encryption prevents data leakage; understand how it works — Photo: Fernando Braga

In other countries, the app has also suffered some retaliation. In India, for example, the courier had to file a lawsuit in New Delhi court against the government. The case is recent and took place in 2021, after new legislation enacted in the country required WhatsApp to make several privacy openings, such as allowing it to track the first user to send a message in a chat.

In the United Kingdom, the British government recently launched a project that provided for reducing the encryption of the app, so that it could be used in investigations of child sexual abuse cases. Faced with the demands, WhatsApp CEO Will Cathcart said in an interview with BBC News that he would not reduce the security of the app.

“If we had to lower security for the world to accommodate the requirement in one country, it would be very foolish for us to accept [a condição]making our product less desirable to 98% of our users because of the 2% requirements,” said Cathcart.

In an interview with the Internetlab digital law research center, cryptography expert Riana Pfefferkorn said that attempts to limit or nullify end-to-end encryption are not effective measures to promote more security in the country.

“Strong encryption is important for the economy, to protect banking transactions, our data from hackers or thieves, and fundamental rights like privacy and freedom of expression,” he said.

5. Is end-to-end encryption really secure?

Regarding chat and interactions within the app, end-to-end encryption ensures information is protected. However, there are other interfaces in the app that can open security holes, such as access permissions to user data. Examples of this are contact lists, device ID and location. It is also worth mentioning that the information that reaches the recipient may be exposed to intruders who have physical access to the cell phone. To avoid this, a possible option is to put a password in the app.

Another way of possible data exposure is through cloud chat backups on Google Drive and iCloud. WhatsApp backup is a feature that allows you to save your message history to rescue old conversations, for example, on a new cell phone. By default, WhatsApp saves messages without encryption.

However, a recent app update allowed encryption to be enabled for backups as well. The feature can be activated in “Settings” > “Conversations” > “Conversation Backup” > “Encrypted End-to-End Backup” > “Enable”. By enabling the function, the messenger informs that the data will be protected with end-to-end encryption, including on storage platforms.

Backup messages can also receive end-to-end encryption — Photo: Reproduction/Flávia Fernandes

See too: Cloned WhatsApp: how to recover account and protect yourself from scam

Cloned WhatsApp: how to recover account and protect yourself from scam

Cloned WhatsApp: how to recover account and protect yourself from scam

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