Brazil’s ban of WhatsApp (which was rescinded today) is an interesting real-world reminder of how the rest of the world messages, and why it is foolish to push communications companies to add back doors to their services.
WhatsApp is an astonishingly successful app (with more than 800 million users worldwide) that allows voice and text communication over an Internet connection. It flourishes in countries like India and Brazil where people with cheap Android phones have cell plans that do not allow unlimited talk and text. Users in these countries save texting and data charges by connecting to wi-fi and using their cell plans as little as possible, and WhatsApp is their messaging service of choice. Over 90% of Android phone owners in Brazil use WhatsApp, so your friends are as likely to have a WhatsApp account as they are to have a smartphone.
When a Brazilian judge decided to block WhatsApp for 48 hours because they wouldn’t comply with a subpoena in a drug case, the competition got a big boost:
5.7 million users joined Telegram today. If you're new here, check this out: https://t.co/x1haKyjvzQ
— Telegram Messenger (@telegram) December 17, 2015
WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, and it keeps the details of its encryption private, so I’m not quite sure if they could comply with that subpoena. Telegram was built by some Russians and is encrypted end-to-end, so it’s very clear they could not comply with any subpoena. As long as Telegram’s encryption is designed and implemented correctly (and you can check the design on their site, it’s all openly specified), nobody can read your messages if they can’t get their hands on your device.
Before you begin cursing the Russians, remember that the first world’s preferred messaging application, iMessage, is also encrypted. iMessage is the protocol your iPhone uses to communicate with other iPhone users. A message in a blue bubble indicates that your i-device is using iMessage. (Green means the message is being sent to a non-i-person via the mobile network.) Apple CEO Tim Cook:
If the government laid a subpoena to get iMessages, we can’t provide it. It’s encrypted and we don’t have a key. And so it’s sort of — the door is closed.
The last reference I found indicated that Apple was processing 2 billion iMessages every day early last year (WhatsApp was processing 50 billion). Even if we assume that NSA superboffins could figure out a way to separate the “LOL WUT”s from the “kill Americans” in 10 billion messages (to pick a low estimate) sent over iMessage and Telegram today, they cannot read them. So we’re already living in a world with completely un-interceptable messaging. Asking US companies to open up a back door for the NSA and FBI (as Hillary Clinton seems to be advocating) will only allow companies like Telegram to gain a real foothold in the US market for those who care about encrypted messaging, which should probably include people living in prohibition states who enjoy an occasional bong hit.
Of course, this back door discussion assumes that terrorists will be smart and use those systems. In Paris, at least some of the communications of attackers was via unecrypted text message. The crazy two from San Berdoo were in the same house and buying guns either legally or illegally from a friend, so they didn’t need much in the way of communications security other than keeping their voices down so they didn’t wake the baby.
This is not to say that encryption is anything but a boon to what GWB would call “evil doers”. But it is also a boon to protect us from those who would want to do bad things to us, and those scammers and hackers have been pretty goddam effective in the past few years, despite the presence of relatively decent encryption. If we start to back door the systems that secure our communications and, more importantly, our key financial transactions, we are going to turn our communications over to a crew of hackers who are a hell of a lot more organized and effective than the few domestic terrorist we’ve seen in the last couple of years.