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​The FBI's problems just got worse: WhatsApp is encrypting all its data

The hugely popular app says it's jumbling all messages, calls and group chats. That means it won't be able to comply with orders to hand over users' data and communications.

Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
Expertise E-commerce, Amazon, earned wage access, online marketplaces, direct to consumer, unions, labor and employment, supply chain, cybersecurity, privacy, stalkerware, hacking. Credentials
  • 2022 Eddie Award for a single article in consumer technology
Laura Hautala
2 min read

WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum said in a blog post that all users' communications will now be encrypted.

© Lino De Vallier/Demotix/Corbis, Lino De Vallier / Demotix

WhatsApp has no idea what you're talking about.

Why? As of this morning, all communications on Facebook-owned WhatsApp are encrypted. That means the messages sent by the service's more than 1 billion users are scrambled up as they travel through WhatsApp's systems and across the Internet, and only the recipient can see or hear them.

"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," wrote WhatsApp co-founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton in a blog post published Tuesday.

That's sure to add tension to the already high-stakes encryption debate raging between Silicon Valley and the US government. The issue at stake is whether government investigators should have a way to pry into our data and communications. Tech companies say no.

In February, Apple locked horns with the FBI over whether it would help investigators hack into the encrypted iPhone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook. The conflict fizzled out when the FBI said it found a way to unlock the phone without Apple's help, but the debate is unresolved.

WhatsApp's stance is even more extreme than Apple's. Even if it wanted to, WhatsApp says it couldn't hand over data from its users. The announcement might read a bit like a raised middle finger to the government of Brazil, which is trying to get its hands on WhatsApp user data in a criminal investigation.

"While we recognize the important work of law enforcement in keeping people safe, efforts to weaken encryption risk exposing people's information to abuse from cybercriminals, hackers, and rogue states," the co-founders wrote in their blog post.

Facebook bought WhatsApp two years ago for $19 billion in part because it's grown to become one of the most popular messaging services in the world. People use it because it's cheaper than the text message plans offered by phone carriers.

There's still a catch to this whole encryption thing though: If someone gets their hands on your phone, they might be able to see your messages.

Unless, of course, your phone is encrypted too (like an iPhone).

Watch this: Why WhatsApp's encryption is a bigger deal than Apple vs The FBI