Is encryption to blame for WhatsApp snooping?

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​Blaming WhatsApp's end-to-end encryption?
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​Blaming WhatsApp's end-to-end encryption?

If we blame end-to-end encryption of WhatsApp for the Israeli spyware Pegasus that affected 1,400 select users of the Facebook-owned messaging app globally, including 121 in India, we will be barking up the wrong tree, say experts.

WhatsApp provides end-to-end encryption by default, which means only the sender and recipient can view the messages. But the piece of NSO Group software exploited WhatsApp's video calling system by installing the spyware via missed calls to snoop on the selected users.

This raised questions about the utility of encryption, which also prohibits security agencies from tracing the origin of messages. Traceability of WhatsApp messages is a key demand that India has put forward.

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​Right kind of spyware
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​Right kind of spyware

According to leading tech policy and media consultant Prasanto K. Roy, end-to-end encrypted apps (E2EE) do provide security, and messages or calls cannot be intercepted and decrypted en route without enormous computing resources.

"But once anyone can get to your handset, whether a human or a piece of software, the encryption doesn't matter any more. Because on your handset, it's all decrypted," he explained. "There's plain text on your screen, and plain audio or video in your camera. The right kind of spyware in your handset can read those messages or even listen in on your phone's mic to what someone is saying in the room, or see what's happening around, with the camera.

"If that happens then all apps are affected, not just WhatsApp. The spyware doesn't care about the app -- it just reads the screen. So, the recent incident has not changed the fact that E2EE apps/platforms are secure. Or the fact that spyware on your handset (which has many vectors: this time it was WhatsApp, but it is usually SMS or email) can compromise your entire handset and all its apps," Roy said.

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​Risks
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​Risks

"Perhaps the most important private sector change occurred when businesses throughout the world set about switching their website platforms, replacing http (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) with the encrypted https (the S signifies security), which helps prevent third party interception of Web traffic," Snowden wrote.

Balmas agreed the move to embrace encryption by chat applications marked a "good progress" in terms of user security and privacy.

"The encryption is solid and the algorithms behave as expected, however risks are still there, especially ones that originate from the surrounding operating system, which cannot be controlled or expected by any of the instant messaging software providers," he said.

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