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For most of the past six weeks, the biggest story out of Silicon Valley was Apple’s battle with the FBI over a federal order to unlock the iPhone of a mass shooter. The company’s refusal touched off a searing debate over privacy and security in the digital age. But this morning, at a small office in Mountain View, California, three guys made the scope of that enormous debate look kinda small.
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For most of the past six weeks, the biggest story out of Silicon Valley was Apple’s battle with the FBI over a federal order to unlock the iPhone of a mass shooter. The company’s refusal touched off a searing debate over privacy and security in the digital age. But this morning, at a small office in Mountain View, California, three guys made the scope of that enormous debate look kinda small. Mountain View is home to WhatsApp , an online messaging service now owned by tech giant Facebook , that has grown into one of the world’s most important applications.
More than a billion people trade messages, make phone calls, send photos, and swap videos using the service.
This means that only Facebook itself runs a larger self-contained communications network. And today, the enigmatic founders of WhatsApp, Brian Acton and Jan Koum, together with a high-minded coder and cryptographer who goes by the pseudonym Moxie Marlinspike, revealed that the company has added end-to-end encryption to every form of communication on its service.
Michael Friberg for WIRED This means that if any group of people uses the latest version of WhatsApp—whether that group spans two people or ten—the service will encrypt all messages, phone calls, photos, and videos moving among them. And that’s true on any phone that runs the app, from iPhones to Android phones to Windows phones to old school Nokia flip phones. With end-to-end encryption in place, not even WhatsApp’s employees can read the data that’s sent across its network.
In other words, WhatsApp has no way of complying with a court order demanding access to the content of any message, phone call, photo, or video traveling through its service. Like Apple, WhatsApp is, in practice, stonewalling the federal government, but it’s doing so on a larger front—one that spans roughly a billion devices.
With encryption, Acton explains, anyone can conduct business or talk to a doctor without worrying about eavesdroppers. With encryption, he says, you can even be a whistleblower—and not worry. But many inside the government and out are sure to take issue with the company’s move. In late , WhatsApp encrypted a portion of its network.
In the months since, its service has apparently been used to facilitate criminal acts, including the terrorist attacks on Paris last year. According to The New York Times, as recently as this month, the Justice Department was considering a court case against the company after a wiretap order still under seal ran into WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption.
What is the reasonable level of assistance you should ask from that company? But the prospect of a court case doesn’t move Acton and Koum. Espousing an article of faith that’s commonly held among Silicon Valley engineers—sometimes devoutly, sometimes casually—they believe that online privacy must be protected against surveillance of all kinds.
But in a lot of countries you don’t have these checks and balances,” says Koum, dressed in his usual T-shirt and hoodie. Maybe you want to trust the government, but you shouldn’t because you don’t know where things are going to go in the future. The dreadlocked coder runs an open source software project, Open Whisper Systems , that provides encryption for messaging services.
In tech security and privacy circles, Marlinspike is a well-known idealist. But the stance he has taken alongside Acton and Koum—not to mention the other WhatsApp engineers who worked on the project and the braintrust at Facebook that’s backing the effort—is hardly extreme in the context of Silicon Valley’s wider clash with governments and law enforcement over privacy.
In Silicon Valley, strong encryption isn’t really up for debate. Among tech’s most powerful leaders, it’s orthodoxy. And WhatsApp is encryption’s latest champion.
It sees itself as fighting the same fight as Apple and so many others. WhatsApp, more than any company before it, has taken encryption to the masses. What makes this move even more striking is that the company did this with such a tiny group of people. The company employs only about 50 engineers. And it took a team of only 15 of them to bring encryption to the company’s one billion users—a tiny, technologically empowered group of individuals engaging in a new form of asymmetrical resistance to authority, standing up not only to the US government, but all governments.
And these are technological stewards in the style of Silicon Valley: And because they could. Connecting the World Like so many tech startups, WhatsApp’s success seems a bit accidental. Acton and Koum originally conceived of their app as a way for people to broadcast their availability to friends, family, and colleagues: Could they talk or text at that very moment or not?
But the real genius of the app is that very early on, Acton and Koum targeted the international market. In the startup’s first year, they offered the service in German, Spanish, French, and Italian, among other languages, and it rapidly took off overseas, where SMS text fees are much higher in than US.
Today, the company offers the app in more than 50 languages, and it has grown into the primary social network in so many of the world’s countries, including Brazil, India, and large parts of Europe. In many places, local wireless carriers have signed deals with WhatsApp to offer the service directly to their customers, undermining their own texting services but driving more people to use the wider Internet through their wireless networks—and thus driving more revenue.
Since then, with only a slight expansion of staff, WhatsApp has come to serve more than a billion people across the globe. They almost never speak with the media. Koum, in particular, is largely uninterested in press or publicity or, for that matter, any human interaction he deems extraneous.
Although the company runs one of the world’s largest online services—and is owned by the world’s biggest social network—it continues to operate almost entirely on its own in an unmarked building in Mountain View that’s fronted by unusually diligent security. And because the app is far more popular overseas than in the US, the typically fervent Silicon Valley tech press has largely left them alone.
As a result, the American public hasn’t quite grasped the enormous scope of the company’s encryption project or the motivations behind it. Koum and Acton share a long history in computer security. They first met at Yahoo while doing a security audit for the company. During this time, Koum was also part of a seminal security collective and think tank called w00w00 pronounced “whoo whoo” , a tight online community that used the old IRC chat service to trade ideas related to virtually any aspect of the field.
Koum grew up in the Ukraine under Soviet rule before immigrating to the US as a teenager, so he has some intimate familiarity with the challenges of maintaining privacy in the face of an intrusive government.
But Koum says that the bigger force behind encrypting WhatsApp was Acton, a comparatively outgoing individual who grew up in Florida. Maybe not your average mom in middle America, but people on a worldwide basis.
The project didn’t really take off until Moxie Marlinspike remembered a WhatsApp guy—an engineer who worked on the version of WhatsApp for Windows phones—he had met at his girlfriend’s family reunion. Meeting Moxie Moxie Marlinspike’s girlfriend comes from a family of Russian physicists, and in , she held a family reunion at the apartment she shared with Marlinspike.
The guest list included about 23 Russian physicists and one American guy who worked as an engineer at WhatsApp. He had married into the family. Marlinspike chatted briefly with the engineer at the reunion. Then, about a year later, Marlinspike decided it was time to add encryption to WhatsApp, one of the world’s largest messaging services. He sent the guy an email, asking for an introduction to the company’s founders. The debate over encryption has only grown more intense.
When I meet Marlinspike at WhatsApp headquarters, he is somewhat reticent to explain his motivations, which seems typical of the man—at least in interviews with the press.
Online, however, he’s not shy about his views. In the past, he has written that encryption is important because it gives anyone the ability to break the law.
But in Mountain View, he is more laconic. After the engineer helped make an introduction, Acton met Marlinspike at the Dana Street Roasting Company—a popular meeting place for Silicon Valley types. Then, a few weeks later, Marlinspike met with Koum. The two men, it turned out, had plenty in common. Marlinspike had come up in the same world of underground security gurus before joining Twitter in —and promptly leaving the company to form Open Whisper Systems.
Soon, Marlinspike was helping to build end-to-end encryption across all of WhatsApp, alongside Acton and Koum and a small team of WhatsApp engineers. Acton says that they got “lucky” in meeting Marlinspike and that they probably wouldn’t have rolled out full encryption if they hadn’t.
It’s part of an intriguing casualness to the way Acton and Koum discuss their seemingly earthshaking undertaking—not to mention the way Marlinspike stays largely silent. They met. They had the means.
And they built it. It would take about two years. Koum and company wanted to unveil a completely encrypted service at the DLD tech media conference in Munich, where he was set to give a proverbial fireside chat. Germany is a country that puts an unusually high value on privacy, both digital and otherwise, and Koum felt the time was ripe to make WhatsApp’s plans known to the world. Just recently, a Brazilian court had ordered a temporary shutdown of WhatsApp in the country after the company failed to turn over messages to the government that had been sent across a part of the service that was already encrypted.
In Germany, Koum could make his counterpoint. But by the middle of December, it was clear the project wouldn’t be finished. The team was intent on encrypting everything on every kind of phone. Or somebody on a Blackberry can send to a Windows phone. In Germany, Koum talked about WhatsApp’s new business model instead.
As Koum sees it, slipping a backdoor into an encrypted service would defeat the purpose. In the meantime, the debate over encryption has only grown more intense. On February 16, Apple CEO Tim Cook released an open letter refusing the court order to unlock a phone that belonged to one of the two shooters who killed 14 people and seriously injured another 22 during a December attack in San Bernardino, California.
That day, Acton turned to Koum and said: Apparently, the authorities didn’t realize that the Facebook employee had nothing to do with WhatsApp—or that WhatsApp, thanks to end-to-end encryption, had no way of reading the messages.
Two days later, WhatsApp joined Facebook and several other companies in filing an amicus brief in support of Apple in its fight against the FBI. Clearly, WhatsApp has the support of its much larger parent company. Facebook declined to speak specifically for this story. But Koum, after the WhatsApp acquisition, became a member of the Facebook board. But this also wasn’t something Facebook imposed on WhatsApp.
This is a decision WhatsApp made on its own, before it was acquired. By the time Facebook paid billions of dollars for the company, the transformation was already under way. No Backdoor Many lawmakers have called for companies like WhatsApp to equip their encryption schemes with a backdoor available only to law enforcement.
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In today’s Ask the Admin, I’ll explain how a new set of APIs in Windows 10 and Windows Server can be used to block malicious activity. Hello community, I got the following problem: After having installed AntiSpam with Total Protection, it does not work in Outlook The tab in. The encrypting of WhatsApp was supposed to be finished by the middle of January Koum and company wanted to unveil a completely.