What's up with WhatsApp?
WhatsApp is a free messenger app that was bought by Facebook for $19 billion in 2014. The app is primarily used on smartphones to make calls and send messages, images, audio and video. WhatsApp is extremely similar to the default smartphone texting feature, however because it uses your phone’s internet connection to send messages, it costs significantly less in applicable texting fees. WhatsApp has become extremely popular as of late, with a reported 1.2 billion monthly active users.
Perhaps the most desirable feature of WhatsApp, is its capability for end-to-end encrypted instant messaging, introduced in April last year. The encrypted messaging service can be used on various platforms including Android, iPhone, Windows smartphones, and Mac or Windows PCs.
WhatsApp uses part of a security protocol developed by Open Whisper Systems, a company that has its own fully secure messaging app Signal. Now that WhatsApp has end-to-end encryption, no party – governments, police, hackers, other users – can intercept and read your messages. WhatsApp advertises that only the sender and recipient can read their own messages, with even WhatsApp themselves being unable to access or view…
A large reason for the introduction of end-to-end encryption, was because of high profile cases in which authorities requested communications service providers to release sensitive personal data. An example is the San Bernadino attack in 2015, when the FBI asked Apple to unlock an iPhone that was used by one of the shooters. Apple refused, underlining the integral values many large communications companies hold when it comes to personal data, security and encryption. These cases have sparked many debates as to whether or not communications service providers should hand over personal data in criminal cases.
On June 18th 2017, as Beijing broadly tightened its controls over the internet, WhatsApp faced a major disruption in China. Many users suddenly found themselves unable to send videos, photos and voice messages without using a virtual private network (VPN) to circumvent China's censorship filters. Some weren’t even able to send text-based messages and others have complained of a total ban on sending any type of message on WhatsApp.
It should be noted that China operates the world’s largest censorship system, known as the Great Firewall of China (GFW), already blocking thousands of popular websites, social media sites and apps including Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Search engines like Google are blocked and access to a number of foreign news outlets. Other encrypted messaging apps, such as Telegram, are also blocked in China.
This partial block of WhatsApp could soon become a total ban. Some speculate that the efforts for full censorship of WhatsApp by the Chinese government would aid the Chinese with their native WeChat business. Tencent’s WeChat, which is China’s most popular messaging app of choice and not as secure in terms of privacy, has over 490 million users in country. Whereas WhatsApp has an estimated 2 million.
WeChat is known to automatically filter media files, such as images and videos, in private one on one chats. For example, when an image is sent by one user, it disappears and doesn’t reach the end user. WeChat has also been accused of listening to voice messages, censoring content based on keyword and handing over data to authorities.
An unnamed journalist claims the police questioned him after he posted to a WeChat group about a protest:
Others however, report a more political and controlling approach, allowing the government to censor anything that may put the country’s leadership in a bad light. This type of censorship is then viewed as a crackdown on internet freedom in a bid for “internet sovereignty”.
The doctrine of internet sovereignty, which emerged in China in the early 2010s and is now driving Beijing's internet policy, seeks to establish a national, as opposed to global, internet. Instead of the world wide web as we know it, countries would each maintain their own national internet, with the border controls and immigration standards they see fit. Hence giving the Chinese government more effective control over the boundaries of what people can say and do online in China, and preventing them from using a more secure means of communication, essentially allowing access for Chinese authorities.
Despite the Great Firewall of China, many young adults have still managed to gain access to blocked websites and applications using virtual private networks (VPNs). Consequently, the Chinese government is closing in on these as well, slowly blocking access entirely to all of the popular VPN services.
In an effort to crackdown on VPNs, Chinese authorities arrested a 26-year-old, Deng Jiewei, for selling VPN software, which allowed users to visit foreign websites that could not be accessed by a mainland IP address. China's Supreme Court sentenced Deng to nine months in prison for illegal control of computer information system procedures, and fined 5,000 Chinese yuan.
Earlier this year, Apple removed popular VPN apps, including ExpressVPN and Star VPN, from its official Chinese app store in order to comply with the government crackdown that will remain in place until March 31, 2018. Hotels have also stopped providing VPN services in China…
Alternative Secure Comms
WhatsApp is now banned in 12 countries, including the recent censorship in China. With China and other countries' proven ability to intercept messages, people are searching for alternative encrypted messaging apps.
Chenega Secure Comms app for Android, iOS and Mac OS and Windows desktop, provides end-to-end encrypted messaging, off the record conversations and global burn allows you to destroy messages on both sides. Find out more here https://www.chenegaeurope.com/media/1222/csc_ce.pdf
What is next for WhatsApp? How high can the Great Firewall of China be built? Stay tuned for updates...