In June, the Wall Street Journal reported a split in massively popular messaging platform WhatsApp: the app’s co-founders are stark defenders of robust encryption. Facebook, which owns WhatsApp and is yet to pull revenue out of the platform, has considered lowering that level of protection in order to monetise users.
Now Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, has publicly stated in a high profile Senate hearing that Facebook is committed to encryption on WhatsApp, although that may still leave some wiggle room for technological changes later.
“We are strong believers in encryption,” Sandberg told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday in response to a question from republican Senator James Lankford. “Encryption helps keep people safe, it’s what secures our banking system, it’s what secures the security of private messages, and consumers rely on it and depend on it,” Sandberg added.
WhatsApp currently uses end-to-end encryption; with this, a user’s encryption keys are generated and stored on their own device, meaning that the platform operators, in this case WhatsApp and by extension Facebook, cannot decrypt any user messages themselves.
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But WhatsApp’s encryption has faced internal pressure. According to the Wall Street Journal report, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Sandberg wanted WhatsApp’s creators to loosen their stance on encryption in order to provide more “business flexibility.” One potential move, according to the report, would allow companies to communicate with users over customer-service requests, and then possibly store messages in a decrypted form. Brian Acton, one of the founders, decided to leave the company as discussions around placing adverts on the platform heated up, the report adds.
In the hearing Sandberg said “We’re very committed to encryption in WhatsApp and continuing to protect the data and information of our users.” When asked if WhatsApp still used end-to-end encryption (it does), Sandberg said she believed so, but would update the committee of any technical changes.