WhatsApp, one of the most popular alternatives to text-messaging in the world, recently announced that they would be enabling end-to-end encryption in their service (this follows their previous announcement that they’d be partnering with Open Whisper Systems to improve the security of the app)
What, Exactly, Is End-to-End Encryption?
To make sure you understand why this is a big deal, I’ll quickly go through the basics of the technology behind the change. First, let’s take a look at text messaging, a totally unencrypted service. You type out the message on your phone and hit send. That message, character-for-character, is sent to your cell phone provider, where it’s stored on a server. It’s then sent from that server to the recipient’s phone. At every point in the transmission, it’s plain text, which means anyone could read it.
Now we get to end-to-end encryption, like the kind used by WhatsApp. In this method of securing your communications, the key to the encryption is known only by the sender and the recipient, and your message isn’t decrypted when it’s stored on the company server. It sits there, fully encrypted, and totally inaccessible to WhatsApp (or whoever else might get access to that server)
Changes for WhatsApp Users
So WhatsApp is taking a stand, but what does that mean for you? For the most part, absolutely nothing. All of the encryption takes place behind the scenes, and your messages will be sent in exactly the same way they used to.
Now, though, when you tap on the name of the person that you’re sending messages to, you can tap Encryption to get a QR code and a long number that you can compare to the code or number on your recipient’s phone to make sure that your messages are encrypted. It’s probably not something you’re going to do on a regular basis, but it’s nice to know that you could check.
How do I check if my WhatsApp chat is encrypted?
If your WhatsApp app is updated to the latest version (the older iPhones and Android versions will not have it), encryption is active by default.
To verify that your conversation with someone is encrypted, tap on the name of the contact. Conversations with those on updated WhatsApp will be shown as “secured with end-to-end encryption.” Chats with those on older versions will not be encrypted.
How to verify if the encryption is on?
Users have the option to verify after tapping on the message that says the conversation is “secured with end-to-end encryption.” The user can then view a QR code and a 60-digit number. It’s also possible for the person you are conversing with over Whatsapp to scan your QR code or compare the 60-digit number.
What about groups?
Group chats will not be encrypted if even one of the group members is on an older version of WhatsApp.
Why is it a big deal?
WhatsApp has a billion active users. That means it is next only to Facebook as a social communication tool. It has replaced text messaging for most people and voice calls for many. Events from birthday parties to terror attacks are being planned on it. Though WhatsApp never stores any of your messages or photos in a database that authorities could demand access to -- unlike Google or Facebook -- the possibility of interception in air remained. End-to-end encryption now makes it impossible for anyone from data thieves to legally-sanctioned probes to sniff out the conversations in a legible form.