Leading instant message service providing companies – including Facebook, Google and Snapchat– are working on their own increased privacy technology as Apple fights the US government over encryption, the Guardian has learned.
The projects could antagonize authorities just as much as Apple’s more secure iPhones, which are currently at the center of the San Bernardino shooting investigation. They also indicate the industry may be willing to back up their public support for Apple with concrete action. Within weeks, Facebook’s messaging service WhatsApp plans to expand its secure messaging service so that voice calls are also encrypted, in addition to its existing privacy features. The service has some one billion monthly users. Facebook is also considering beefing up security of its own Messenger tool. Snapchat, the popular ephemeral messaging service, is also working on a secure messaging system and Google is exploring extra uses for the technology behind a long-in-the-works encrypted email project. Engineers at major technology firms, including Twitter, have explored encrypted messaging products before only to see them never be released because the products can be hard to use – or the companies prioritized more consumer-friendly projects. But they now hope the increased emphasis on encryption means that technology executives view strong privacy tools as a business advantage – not just a marketing pitch.
These new projects began before Apple entered a court battle with the Department of Justice over whether it should help authorities hack into a suspected terrorist’s iPhone. Apple is due to appear in a federal court in California later this month to fight the order. WhatsApp has been rolling out strong encryption to portions of its users since 2014, making it increasingly difficult for authorities to tap the service’s messages. The issue is personal for founder Jan Koum, who was born in Soviet-era Ukraine. When Apple CEO Tim Cook announced in February that his company would fight the government in court, Koum posted on his Facebook account: “Our freedom and our liberty are at stake.” WhatsApp already offers Android and iPhone users encrypted messaging. In the coming weeks, it plans to offer users encrypted voice calls and encrypted group messages, two people familiar with the matter said. That would make WhatsApp, which is free to download, very difficult for authorities to tap.
The efforts come at a crossroads for Silicon Valley. Google, Facebook, Snapchat, Amazon, Microsoft and Twitter have all signed on to legal briefs supporting Apple in its court case.