Centre for Internet & Society

Whatsapp Says It’s Snoop-Proof Now, But There’s Always A Way In

The article by Arindam Mukherjee was published in Outlook on July 25, 2016. Pranesh Prakash was quoted.

Lock and Key

  • WhatsApp says it has end-to-end encryption, so no one, not even WhatsApp, can snoop into calls.
  • Experts say any encryption can be broken by security agencies. Android phones can also get infected by malware.

For years, a Delhi power-broker used to call from nondescript landline numbers, changing them ever so often. Of late, he has star­ted using WhatsApp calls for ‘sensitive’ conversations. He’s not alone. WhatsApp has revealed that over 100 million voice calls are being made on the social network every day. That’s over 1,100 calls a second! India is one of the biggest user bases of WhatsApp. And many Indian users are making the app their main engine for voice calls.

One reason for this shift is that Whats­App calls are seen to be essentia­lly free­ (though they indeed have data char­ges). But for a lot of people, the chief allure lies in the touted fact that WhatsApp calling is far more secure than mobile calling. In April, the app introduced end-to-end encryption for its messages and voice calls.

Consequent to this, Sudhir Yadav, a Gurgaon-based software engineer filed a PIL in the Supreme Court seeking a ban on WhatsApp on the grounds that its calls are so safe that it could be misused by ‘terrorists’. Last month, a court in Brazil issued orders to block WhatsApp for 72 hours after it failed to provide the auth­orities access to encrypted data.

Are WhatsApp calls rea­lly impenetrable? WhatsApp believes so and says that the encryption key is held by the two persons at the two ends of the message or call and no one, not even the company, can snoop in. “The calls are end-to-end encrypted so WhatsApp and third parties can’t listen to them,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told Outlook. This is precisely Yad­av’s concern. “Because the encryption is end to end, the government can’t break it and WhatsApp cannot provide the decryption key,” he says.

However, experts do not buy this argument. They believe everything on the Internet is vulnerable. “Anything that uses a phone number is vulnerable,” says Kiran Jonnalagadda, founder of technology platform HasGeek. “Anyone can impersonate the phone number by getting a duplicate SIM and get access to a phone. There are also bugs in the system which secu­rity agencies use.”

WhatsApp uses a person’s phone number to open an account and authenticate a user. So, if the government or a security agency wants to get access to a WhatsApp call, it would be very easy. “Telecom companies cannot access these calls as they are encrypted before they reach the network. But the government can. It just has to replicate a SIM to access any number and its messa­ges or voice calls,” says Aravind R.S., a volunteer for Save the Internet campaign and founder of community chat app Belong,

There are other modes of attack as well. It is a given that Android phones, which form the majority of mobile phones used in India today, are most vulnerable to malware attacks. So, even if the app itself is secure, the device is not and if the device is attacked, just about everything in it can be tapped into. For instance, there’s the ‘man in the middle’ mode of attack, where a third person gets into a call and mirrors the messages to both the sides and relays the messages or calls to a different server. There is also the SS7 signalling protocol that can help hackers get into networks and calls. These att­acks can make even a WhatsApp encryption vulnerable.

Security agencies and hackers routinely implant viruses into the phones of people they are monitoring. Once a phone is “infected”, everything is accessible. And Android phones are extremely prone to attacks from malware. “It's not perfectly secure, especially if there is any virus in an And­roid phone, which is what security agencies work with. They have many more ways to get into a phone. There is no def­ence against that,” says Aravind,

Experts believe it is possible that US inte­lligence agencies like the FBI and the NSA may have access to or are capable of breaking into even the WhatsApp encryption. This is proven by the rec­ent incident where the FBI, after being refused by Apple to open up an ­iPhone used by a terrorist, broke into the phone by itself.

“If you are on the NSA list, there is nothing you can do to protect yourself,” says Pranesh Prakash, policy director with the Centre for Internet and Society. “They will find a way to get into your phone. In WhatsApp, many things like photographs and videos are not encrypted; these can get access to a person’s account.”

In India, the debate on access to enc­rypted phones has been on since the government engaged with Blackberry a few years ago. “There is no law governing an Over The Top (OTT) service like WhatsApp. If the government orders dec­ryption of a call and WhatsApp cannot comply, it will become illegal,” says cyber lawyer Ashe­eta Regidi. The government’s seeming comfort level with all this legal amb­iguity is yet another indi­cator that all is not what is seems with WhatsApp. As for callers, they would do well to speak discreetly on any network.