The government's war on encryption is so much larger than unlocking one iPhone

The US government’s war against encryption is so much larger than its ongoing fight with Apple.

New court filings against Apple and a potential battle with Facebook-owned WhatsApp could mean that secure communications could eventually be illegal in the United States.

With WhatsApp, users can send texts and make calls using end-to-end encryption, meaning that only the recipients has access to them. Not even WhatsApp can access the messages.

According to The New York Times, the DoJ may soon take WhatsApp to court over a wiretap order it can’t comply with — since the company itself can’t read user messages even if it wanted to — which would open a new front against tech companies that could seek to end the use of such encryption.

“Some investigators view the WhatsApp issue as even more significant than the one over locked phones because it goes to the heart of the future of wiretapping. They say the Justice Department should ask a judge to force WhatsApp to help the government get information that has been encrypted. Others are reluctant to escalate the dispute, particularly with senators saying they will soon introduce legislation to help the government get data in a format it can read,” writes the Times’ Matt Apuzzo.

DoJ did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Tech Insider.

Like many other tech companies — including giants Facebook and Google — WhatsApp in 2014 decided to implement encryption by default into its messaging products.

But a court battle with DoJ, or possible legislation, could renew a push for American companies to provide a “backdoor” when a court order comes up. But it’s not really that simple: Building a backdoor into your security protocol means it is inherently insecure and open to attack from hackers.

“The Department of Justice has not yet decided whether to ask the court for a follow-on order that would compel WhatsApp to decrypt the messages,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote on its blog. “Presumably, that second order would look similar to the San Bernardino order and direct WhatsApp to write code that would break its own encryption and allow it to provide plain text in response to the wiretap order.”

And encryption is not only an American product. There are hundreds of secure-messaging apps that use it, many of which are far from US shores and not applicable to American laws. Telegram, for example, is a secure messaging app similar to WhatsApp that is headquartered in Russia.

So it’s a safe bet that anti-encryption efforts in the US will just drive users to the foreign competition.

Will a court try to compel WhatsApp to break its encryption? That’s still up in the air.

But DoJ is using a new and somewhat surprising tactic in its fight with Apple, according to a March 10 court filing. Government lawyers now argue that they’d be willing to modify the judge’s order forcing Apple to write code to unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s phone, if the company just hands over its source code.

“The FBI cannot itself modify the software on Farook’s iPhone without access to the source code and Apple’s private electronic signature. The government did not seek to compel Apple to turn those over because it believed such a request would be less palatable to Apple. If Apple would prefer that course, however, that may provide an alternative that requires less labour by Apple programmers.”

Here’s what’s happening: The FBI wants Apple to write code to help unlock the shooter’s phone. Apple has argued this would set a precedent for a “backdoor” around its encryption, in addition to burdening the company with a labour-intensive process of writing new software.

Now the government says never mind all that. Just give us the source code and we’ll do it ourselves. Which is tantamount to the FBI asking Coca-Cola for its secret formula.

With software source code — what programmers need in order to modify the programs that run on your computer or phone — it’d be somewhat academic for the government to basically build its own version of iOS, backdoor and all. Though this “nuclear option” isn’t being taken all that seriously on Apple’s side, according to Reuters.

Still, the DoJ’s veiled threat seeking source code, a courtroom fight with WhatsApp, and possible legislation to ban encryption that cannot be decrypted by the federal government means the outcome of this debate will have far larger implications than one iPhone in San Bernardino.

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