WhatsApp encryption a ‘victory for individual privacy­’

Encryption ensures privacy is properly protected. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Encryption ensures privacy is properly protected. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Instant messaging service WhatsApp’s recent introduction of end-to-end encryption for all users is a victory for individual privacy and security, despite concerns the move will make it harder to track criminal activity, according to UN Special Rapporteur on Privacy Joseph Cannataci.

“Encryption increases security rather than diminishes it,” said Prof. Cannataci, who is also head of the Department of Information Policy and Governance at the University of Malta. “It reduces the risk of unlawful interception by undesirable elements and especially organisations or individuals with criminal intent.”

WhatsApp, which has more than a billion users worldwide, recently announced an upgrade to the privacy settings on the latest version of its app.

Messages between users, as well as phone calls and media, will now no longer be stored on WhatsApp servers and can only be read by the sender and receiver.

Neither WhatsApp (a subsidiary of Facebook) itself, nor third parties such as government agencies, will be able to access the contents of users’ communications.

It reduces the risk of unlawful interception by undesirable elements

Critics have said the move will make it easier for terrorists and criminals using the app to evade the reach of security and law enforcement agencies.

Prof. Cannataci, however, told the Times of Malta the fundamental right of individual citizens to expect privacy and security in their personal data and communications outweighed the risk, particularly because the actual threat of being killed in a terrorist attack was equivalent to “being hit by an asteroid”.

“The vast majority of citizens are law abiding, therefore it is only fair that they would expect that their privacy is properly protected in a democratic society, where security and law enforcement agencies should not be able to intercept communications at will but only in a tiny minority of well-defined circumstances.”

Prof. Cannataci has previously warned that the law regulating government surveillance over private citizens in Malta was ill-conceived, outdated and did not offer citizens enough protection.

The Maltese government, meanwhile, has regularly topped the global list for the most requests, per capita, for private data from Facebook, as well as lodging 3,773 requests for communications data from Vodafone in 2013.

According to Prof. Cannataci, most terrorist and organised crime groups already have the resources to develop their own sophisticated encrypted means of communication. Being denied strong end-to-end encryption, therefore, would mostly put at risk the privacy and security of the overwhelming majority of law-abiding users.

“This level of security is very useful for preventing so-called ‘man-in-the-middle’ attacks and thus can protect the user from all kinds of eavesdropping, including attempts at hacking WhatsApp messages by organised crime,” he said.

Prof. Cannataci added that it would be a “huge mistake” for individuals not to consider encryption in their day-to-day online activities.

“I would encourage owners of mobile devices to take every opportunity to protect these devices at least as well as they would their laptop and desktop computers at home, and if possible much more, given the higher risk of their being lost or stolen,” he said.

“All users should consider the benefits of added protection offered by totally encrypting all of the content on their phone, tablet, laptop or other mobile device.

“WhatsApp has offered simply the equivalent of an armoured van used to ferry cash between banks and shops and bank branches. It would be useless for the armoured van to arrive at a location where the securely-transported message is then unloaded into a place which is insecure.”

Read Prof Cannataci's comments in full.

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