Some of the Silicon Valley’s leading technology companies – including Facebook, Google and Snapchat, are increasing 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 prioritised 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.
Barack Obama has also made it clear he thinks some technology companies are going too far. “If government can’t get in, then everyone’s walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket, right?” he said 11 March at the SXSW technology conference in Austin, Texas.
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.
Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, has talked publicly about how tech companies can help the west combat Isis online and Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, recently joined a Defense Department advisory group on how tech can aid in future battles.
Those matters may seem separate, but US national security officials view the increasing availability of encryption technology as a major aid to Islamic State’s online recruitment efforts. At some point, tech firms may have to choose whether they care more about being seen as helping the west to fight terrorism or standing as privacy advocates.
Some technology executives think one middle path would be to encourage the use of encryption for the content of messages while maintaining the ability to hand over metadata, which reveals who is speaking to whom, how often and when. That is why the specifics of the new products will be key to determining both their security and Washington’s reaction to them.