WhatsApp Unveils True Encryption For Its One Billion iPhone Users

Now, no one can read your messages except the people you send them to—not even the company itself

Apr 05, 2016 at 2:18 PM ET

Move over, Apple. WhatsApp, the most popular mobile messaging app in the world, has given its more than one billion users end-to-end encryption.

“The idea is simple: when you send a message, the only person who can read it is the person or group chat that you send that message to,” WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum wrote, announcing the update. “Not hackers. Not oppressive regimes. Not even us.”

It’s the result of more than a year’s worth of work for the company, which partnered with renowned U.S. government-funded encryption service Open Whisper Systems to encrypt the gamut of ways to communicate with WhatsApp: group texts, attached files, and phone calls, which work with Apple, Android, and Windows, and even BlackBerry phones.

The idea that a popular tech company can roll out end-to-end encryption—meaning that even the company itself doesn’t have the keys to decode a user’s conversation—has been legally contentious recently. Several senators have promised a bill that would force tech companies to somehow undermine end-to-end encryption, despite technologists claim that such a practice would leave users vulnerable to private and state-sanctioned hackers.

The FBI has repeatedly clashed in court with Apple over users who used iMessage, which also uses such encryption, over a number of cases, most visibly the one involving the iPhone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook. But in a similar but much less publicized case, where most details are unknown as it’s under seal, WhatsApp stood up to the Department of Justice, which wanted a way to tap a user’s communications. The results of that case are still unknown.

“I grew up in the USSR during communist rule and the fact that people couldn’t speak freely is one of the reasons my family moved to the United States,” Koum, the WhatsApp CEO, wrote. “The desire to protect people’s private communication is one of the core beliefs we have at WhatsApp, and for me, it’s personal.”