“Private messages, private calls are so sensitive that they should not just live on some server. That’s just too big a risk to take with people’s privacy,” says the head of WhatsApp Will Cathcart as governments around the world are trying to restrict data encryption for the sake of law enforcement.
“Coronavirus has changed our world in a lot of ways. It forced us to have conversations digitally. In April, we saw a huge increase in our services, over 100 billion messages delivered a day, over 50 million voice and video calls,” said Mr. Cathcart during the RightsCon 2020 summit.
He worries about the growing incentive from Western governments to restrict end-to-end encryption.
What is end-to-end encryption?
WhatsApp and some other messaging services, such as Signal, use end-to-end encryption. This means that the message is scrambled from when it leaves your phone to when it gets to the recipient. No one along the way can listen to it or read it.
Encryption services are gaining popularity in places such as Hong Kong, as China imposed a new national security law in the city. Law enforcement can ask online platforms for someone’s data, but as long as it’s encrypted, there’s no way for them to read it.
“Governments around the world want to snoop in on what people are doing. End-to-end encryption protects whistleblowers, journalists, and adverse groups in repressive regimes. This is under threat,” said Mr. Cathcart.
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Governments have been advocating against encryption for a long time. They are not banning it yet, but looking for ways to regulate it. This includes not only authoritarian regimes but Western democracies as well.
“What happens in a specific country around encryption can impact people in other countries. The debate in the US around encryption wouldn’t just affect people in the US, it would affect all the people around the world if a provider of a service is a subject to the US law,” said the head of WhatsApp.
The robust discussion about end-to-end encryption in Australia, the UK, and the US, reckons Mr. Cathcart, has encouraged people in other countries to now challenge encryption more forcefully.
“If you propose weakening security in a West, democratic, liberal, human rights traditional country, the reality is that people in that country are going to be subject to surveillance and spying from authoritarian regimes. If there would be a hole in your communication, you would expect spying from all over the world,” said Mr. Cathcart.
“Law enforcement is living in a golden age of surveillance”
Governments are arguing that investigators are left with no evidence if all of the messages are encrypted.
“The reality is not that law enforcement is somehow living in a world that is going dark. I would argue, law enforcement is living in a golden age of surveillance,” said Mr. Cathcart.
He says there’s more data about our lives online than ever.
“Here in the US, law enforcement can go to Apple and Google with a warrant saying tell us about everyone in this geographical location at these times. Private messages and calls are so sensitive that they should not all just live on some server. That’s just too big a risk to take with people’s privacy,” said Mr. Cathcart.
In some authoritarian regimes, the surveillance has already gone to unimaginable lengths. For example, Chinese law enforcement is monitoring messaging services and looking for what they call “misinformation or fake news.”
“With the coronavirus appearing in Wuhan, a lot of really brave doctors shared information of what they were seeing over messaging, and in some cases got in trouble or were told that what they were doing was destabilizing or fake, and they shouldn’t share it. I don’t think we want to live in that world,” said Mr. Cathcart.
“People are being spied on in horrifying ways”
Another problem is the growing industry of companies that are creating hacking software, spyware, and selling it all around the world.
“This software is horrifying. It, for example, exploits vulnerabilities in your phone operating system. It lets hackers turn on the camera silently, turn on the microphone, track the physical location of the device at a distance, get alerts if you go to a specific area,” said WhatsApp leader.
This industry is trying to legitimize their business by saying they are creating software for law enforcement purposes, such as for identifying terrorists.
“But in practice, these tools are widely abused. Journalists, human rights advocates, government officials, religious leaders are being spied on. A lot of people around the world who are fighting for freedom and democracy are being targeted and being spied on in horrifying ways. It is out of control,” said Mr. Cathcart.