All you need to know about WhatsApp encryption

WhatsApp's end-to-end encryption — here’s how it works.

Updated - November 17, 2021 05:11 am IST

Published - April 07, 2016 09:22 pm IST

You may not feel it but on April 5, IIT post-doctoral-level algebra started being applied to those pictures of your child spreading paint on the floor that your old schoolmates don’t want to see but are too polite to say. WhatsApp, which has come to replace text messaging as the go-to tool for teens and bosses, went in for full end-to-end encryption on that day. Here’s how it works:

What is end-to-end encryption?

If you are using any system with end-to-end encryption, it means that any electronic message that you send (mail/text/video et al ) is scrambled in such a way that it makes sense only on the system of your intended recipient.

WhatsApp had started encrypting your text messages in late 2014 itself. On April 5, it started encrypting even your calls, photos and videos.

How do I check if my WhatsApp chat is encrypted?

If your WhatsApp app is updated to the latest version (the older iPhones and Android versions will not have it), encryption is active by default.

To verify that your conversation with someone is encrypted, tap on the name of the contact. Conversations with those on updated WhatsApp will be shown as “secured with end-to-end encryption.” Chats with those on older versions will not be encrypted.

How to verify if the encryption is on?

Users have the option to verify after tapping on the message that says the conversation is “secured with end-to-end encryption.” The user can then view a QR code and a 60-digit number. It’s also possible for the person you are conversing with over Whatsapp to scan your QR code or compare the 60-digit number.

What about groups?

Group chats will not be encrypted if even one of the group members is on an older version of WhatsApp.

How is it being done?

WhatsApp is using a system that encrypts each of your messages with a unique key. That means even if someone cracks one key they will most probably get only a part of the conversation and cannot use that key to decrypt the rest of that conversation. The basis of the encryption is the Signal Protocol, designed by Open Whisper Systems.

Why is it a big deal?

WhatsApp has a billion active users. That means it is next only to Facebook as a social communication tool. It has replaced text messaging for most people and voice calls for many. Events from birthday parties to terror attacks are being planned on it. Though WhatsApp never stores any of your messages or photos in a database that authorities could demand access to -- unlike Google or Facebook -- the possibility of interception in air remained. End-to-end encryption now makes it impossible for anyone from data thieves to legally-sanctioned probes to sniff out the conversations in a legible form.

The police are not interested in me, only in terrorists. So why bother?

Sure, in most countries. But many of WhatsApp’s users are in countries where that is not an assurance. And WhatsApp founder Jan Koum, who grew up in the Soviet Ukraine in the 1980s, probably understands it quite well.

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