This week, WhatsApp, the world’s most popular mobile messaging platform, enabled its millions of users to communicate securely through an update incorporating technology using Open Whisper Systems’ TextSecure encryption protocol. This default end-to-end encryption currently applies to text messages sent via WhatsApp’s Android version. But the Facebook owned messaging service will soon cover group messages and multimedia as well. Although this security boost does not apply to other smartphone operating systems, Open Whisper Systems is planning to develop versions of TextSecure compatible with iOS versions of WhatsApp in the near future.
With more than 600 million users worldwide, WhatsApp continues to expand its user base with more than 100 million active users in Asia and 15 million users in the Middle East and North Africa. Since the recent uprisings both in East Asia as well as the Middle East and North Africa region, many people now depend on social media and messaging apps to access information and raise awareness regarding issues of importance. As citizens in repressive environments use Facebook and WhatsApp among other tools as channels of expression and awareness raising, many governments have adopted measures to counter these efforts by blocking access to information and closely monitoring user activities.
WeChat users in January 2013 had found that keywords 南方周末 (nan fang zhou mo) “Southern Weekend” and 法轮功 (Falun Gong) were triggering blocking notifications for users inside and outside of China, specifically informing users that these terms were “restricted words”. Researchers at Citizen Lab also discovered keyword censorship underway in the messaging app Line, with a list of of over 150 words making reference to political issues in China. According to digital security researcher and co-founder of Open Whisper Systems Moxie Marlinspike, one of the two major telecoms operating in Saudi Arabia, has been organizing a surveillance program to intercept mobile application data, with specific interest in WhatsApp, Viber, Mobile Twitter and Line. Similarly, the Egyptian government contracted See Egypt to allow authorities to monitor private online communications on messaging apps including WhatsApp, Viber and Skype.
Seeing how repressive countries have sought to expand their censorship and surveillance efforts to include instant messaging mobile applications, this collaboration between Open Whisper Systems and Facebook/WhatsApp offers new hope for activists and average citizens alike to communicate safely. The barrier to access secure communication tools is lower, and the ability for individuals to communicate securely with individuals is easier. Open Whisper Systems and WhatsApp have raised the bar for other social networking applications to treat user safety with a higher priority than before, and we look forward to further mainstreaming of digital security tools for all.