WhatsApp chats are end-to-end encrypted, something that the Facebook-owned company has always maintained. End-to-end encryption means that no one apart from the sender and receiver can read the messages, not even WhatsApp. So despite such stringent rules, why is it that every time there is a Bollywood scandal, the WhatsApp chats of the person involved are leaked and accessed? Of late, there have been too many instances of WhatsApp chats of Bollywood celebrities leaking.
In 2020, WhatsApp chats belonging to actress Rhea Chakraborty were circulated all over the internet. Then we saw Deepika Padukone heading to the NCB office after her chats with an alleged drug dealer were accessed. The latest case involves Bollywood actress Ananya Pandey, who was summoned by the NCB after her chats with Aryan Khan, son of Shah Rukh Khan, were allegedly revealed to the authorities.
All these incidents make one question whether WhatsApp messages are really end-to-end encrypted? And how do the chats leak or are accessed by others? We try to explain.
Is WhatsApp really end-to-end encrypted?
WhatsApp has always maintained that all its messages are end-to-end encrypted. In the given scenario, the messages can only be read by the sender and the receiver and no third person can gain access to them, not even WhatsApp and Facebook. WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption uses a Signal Protocol which keeps the third parties and WhatsApp itself from having access to messages or calls.
“WhatsApp has no ability to see the content of messages or listen to calls that are end-to-end encrypted. That’s because the encryption and decryption of messages sent and received on WhatsApp occur entirely on your device. Before a message ever leaves your device, it’s secured with a cryptographic lock, and only the recipient has the keys. In addition, the keys change with every single message that’s sent. While all of this happens behind the scenes, you can confirm your conversations are protected by checking the security verification code on your device,” WhatsApp’s FAQ page states.
How can WhatsApp chats be accessed despite end-to-end encryption?
End-to-end encryption, when implemented well, is a serious business. It is near impossible, if not impossible, to break into end-to-end encrypted data. So, how do WhatsApp chats leak? The reality, in most cases, is that they don’t. Instead, they are accessed. And this access happens simply with: Unlock your phone and give it to me. In India, the law around the access of personal devices like smartphones is hazy. In the US or many European countries, cops require warrant before they can seize and search phones and computers.
— The phone is physically accessed and the user is told to unlock it. Once unlocked, all chats are accessible. Screenshots can be taken, they can be copied, they can be shared.
— The phone is physically accessed but it is not unlocked. In this instance, forensics teams can do some of their magic. WhatsApp chats are encrypted but until a couple of weeks ago the Chat Backups that WhatsApp was making to Google Drive or iCloud were not encrypted. These chat backups could be accessed using some specialised tools.
For example, once someone has the phone, data on it could be cloned to a computer and then could be accessed using forensic tools.
— At the same time, there is an option available to law enforcement agencies to approach Google and Apple with a valid court order and get the WhatsApp chat backups (unencrypted until recently) from them. These backups then could be taken apart in forensic labs.
Even now when the chat backups can be encrypted, the option has to be enabled by the user. So, unless you explicitly tell WhatsApp to encrypt your chat backups, they will still be in unencrypted form.
Can WhatsApp share data with Law enforcement authorities?
Law enforcement authorities can contact WhatsApp to share the account records of a user in emergency situations. The store contents of any account may include “about” information, profile photos, group information and address book, if available. Once a request is placed, WhatsApp carefully reviews, validate and respond to law enforcement requests based on applicable law and policy.
However, nowhere does the FAQ page of WhatsApp states that the messaging app shares the message content with the law enforcement authorities. It is because WhatsApp does not store messages once they are delivered or transaction logs of such delivered messages. The undelivered messages are deleted from WhatsApp servers after 30 days. The end-to-end encryption, which is activated by default, does not allow WhatsApp to access the chats of its users.