WhatsApp has introduced full end-to-end encryption to its messaging app, covering texts, photos, videos, voice messages and files sent via the service.
With the app's latest update, messages will be encrypted by default, meaning not even WhatsApp can access the content of what's sent – though it will still be able to see who is sending and receiving messages. Encryption has been actually available on the Android app since 2014, but this is the first time it is available across platforms, as well as covering group messages and non-text media.
The launch looks like a fairly clear answer to the ongoing controversies in both the US and UK regarding government access to user data. In a blog post announcing the development, WhatsApp co-founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton name "oppressive regimes" as one of the parties they want to keep out alongside "cybercriminals" and "hackers", and though they specify that this refers to "rogue states", the timing seems unlikely to be a coincidence.
"Every day we see stories about sensitive records being improperly accessed or stolen. And if nothing is done, more of people's digital information and communication will be vulnerable to attack in the years to come," the post reads.
Privacy has always been something WhatsApp has been keen to highlight. As Koum writes: "The desire to protect people's private communication is one of the core beliefs we have at WhatsApp, and me, it's personal. 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 US."
This focus on user privacy was one of the questions raised after Facebook's $16bn acquisition of WhatsApp in 2014, as it seemed at odds with Facebook's interests in monetising the platform. We still haven't seen any movement on that front, but the social giant has recently stood firmly behind encryption, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressing support for Apple in its encryption battle with the FBI during his MWC keynote in February.