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WhatsApp next on the government's hit list in the great encryption debate

WhatsApp is reportedly the next company in the government's firing line in the great encryption debate, with a wiretapping case where encryption is blocking investigators as the backdrop.

Published onMarch 14, 2016


WhatsApp is reportedly the next company in the government’s firing line in the great encryption debate. The New York Times is reporting that government officials are “privately debating how to resolve a prolonged standoff” with WhatsApp over access to its encrypted messages and phone calls.

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Nothing has been made official yet, so there’s no court order or high-profile backdrop like there is in the San Bernadino shooter’s iPhone case. But the simple fact that the government is privately fighting a similar battle with WhatsApp over encryption proves that its attempts to get Apple to help it crack the iPhone’s encryption are not at all a “one time only” affair.

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The Justice Department is reportedly deciding how to proceed against WhatsApp in an ongoing investigation where a judge has authorized a wiretap but investigators can’t get what they are after due to WhatsApp’s encryption. “They say the Justice Department should ask a judge to force WhatsApp to help the government get information that has been encrypted,” The New York Times reports.

As with the San Bernadino case, the government is allegedly waiting for the “right case” to make their demands to WhatsApp seem most reasonable before taking it to court. “Some investigators view the WhatsApp issue as even more significant than the one over locked phones because it goes to the heart of the future of wiretapping.”

WhatsApp documents teaser

At this point it seems inevitable that WhatsApp will find itself embroiled in a very public, very heated battle with the U.S. government sooner or later. Although, as The New York Times notes, “a senior law enforcement official disputed the notion that the government was angling for the perfect case, and said that litigation was not inevitable.” But this assertion sounds a little too much like the FBI’s promise that forcing Apple to unlock one iPhone doesn’t mean unlocking all iPhones.

As various Apple spokespeople and lawyers have made clear, you can’t selectively unlock one iPhone’s encryption. To bypass encryption on one iPhone is to bypass it on all iPhones. The same is true of WhatsApp: once WhatsApp’s encryption is cracked – by brute force or court order – all WhatsApp encryption has been cracked.

Where do you stand on encryption? What obligations do you think WhatsApp has to law enforcement?

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