When Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014, questions arose around the app’s encryption status. After all, if Facebook has continuously (miserably) failed to protect its users’ data and keep promises to its users regarding their privacy, why would WhatsApp be any different?
And during Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate hearing in 2018, Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) famously asked what most people seemed to think was a bizarre question: “If I’m emailing within WhatsApp, does that ever inform your advertisers?”, he said.
No doubt, the wording was clumsy; but Schatz’ question got to the heart of an important matter: are users’ WhatsApp messages truly encrypted? Are the contents of the messages shared with advertisers?
“No,” Zuckerberg replied. “We don’t see any of the content within WhatsApp. It’s fully encrypted.”
And while that may have been true at the time, it seems as though WhatsApp’s encryption could soon become a thing of the past.
Earlier this year, Facebook announced the first round of results of an initiative that, according to Tech entrepreneur Kalev Leetaru, would effectively implement surveillance measures onto users’ devices that would bypass end-to-end encryption.
This is awful, if true. @facebook please walk away from this.
(TLDR: Facebook embedding a content scanning app that reads your comms before encryption is applied, and forwards them to a central server if they trigger a filter. So, basically, a wiretap. ) https://t.co/ENmagjOGdF
— Sharon Goldberg (@goldbe) July 29, 2019
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Leetaru said that the announcement came in a seemingly innocuous presentation entitled “Applying AI to Keep the Platform Safe” delivered by Ram Ramanathan, Facebook’s Head of Project Management and AI Solutions for Integrity, as well as Reshef Shilon and Pinar Donmez, Applied Research Scientists at Facebook.
Here’s how it’ll work: WhatsApp and other encrypted messaging clients associated with the social media giant will be equipped with filtering algorithms and other embedded content moderation tools that will scan each message before it is sent and after it is received.
Leetaru explained that when the algorithms detect some funny business, they “will need to quietly stream a copy of the formerly encrypted content back to its central servers to analyze further, even if the user objects, acting as true wiretapping service.”
Anti-encryption tools could open Pandora’s box
In other words, Facebook seems to be creating an AI-powered means of bypassing end-to-end encryption on WhatsApp, a method that could potentially be used for wiretapping purposes that have no association with Facebook.
If these tools are indeed being developed, they could eventually be embedded into devices themselves, making them completely impossible to evade. Without effective counter-innovation, the end of the era of encrypted messaging could be in sight.
There is no set date for when these wiretapping methods will be deployed on WhatsApp, nor any information regarding the current status of the project. Facebook did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Any effort on Facebook’s part to disrupt encryption and surveil encrypted messages may have come as a response to pressure from the US government over encryption-related national security concerns.
Just last week, Attorney General William Barr railed against the risks associated with encryption that can’t be accessed by law enforcement.
“[The associated] costs will grow exponentially as [the] deployment of warrant-proof encryption accelerates and criminals are emboldened by their ability to evade detection,” he explained at a cybersecurity conference in New York City.