What­sApp adds se­cure video call­ing amid pri­vacy con­cerns

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

One of the world’s most pop­u­lar means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Facebook’s What­sApp, is adding fully en­crypted video call­ing to its mes­sag­ing app on Mon­day, a move that comes as pri­vacy ad­vo­cates worry about the po­ten­tial for stepped-up govern­ment sur­veil­lance un­der a Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. What­sApp, which boasts more than a bil­lion users world­wide, adopted endto-end en­cryp­tion early this year, mak­ing it tech­ni­cally im­pos­si­ble for the com­pany or govern­ment au­thor­i­ties to read mes­sages or lis­ten to calls.

The new video call­ing ser­vice will thus pro­vide another means for peo­ple to com­mu­ni­cate with­out fear of eaves­drop­ping though What­sApp does re­tain other data such as an in­di­vid­ual’s list of con­tacts. What­sApp co-founder Jan Koum said in an in­ter­view that video calls will be rolled out to 180 coun­tries within hours af­ter the fea­ture is in­tro­duced at an event in In­dia.

“We ob­vi­ously try to be in tune with what our users want,” Koum said at the com­pany’s un­marked Moun­tain View, Cal­i­for­nia head­quar­ters build­ing. “We’re ob­sessed with mak­ing sure that voice and video work well even on low-end phones.”

Koum told Reuters that im­prove­ments in phone cam­eras, bat­tery life and band­width had made the ser­vice vi­able for a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of What­sApp users, even those us­ing in­ex­pen­sive smart­phones. Ap­ple Inc of­fers its FaceTime video calls to iPhone users, and Mi­crosoft Corp’s Skype of­fers video calls on mul­ti­ple plat­forms. But What­sApp has built a mas­sive in­stalled base of mo­bile cus­tomers and has been steadily adding more fea­tures to what be­gan as a sim­ple chat ap­pli­ca­tions.

PRICE OF AL­LE­GIANCE

What­sApp has op­er­ated with some au­ton­omy since Facebook bought it in 2014. Koum and co-founder Brian Ac­ton, long­time Ya­hoo en­gi­neers who started the com­pany in 2009, now have 200 staff, mostly en­gi­neers and cus­tomer sup­port, up from 50 when Facebook bought it. Koum said Facebook has al­lowed What­sApp to use its servers and band­width around the world for voice and now video. That sup­port will help spread the souped-up What­sApp much far­ther and faster, he said.

But the cor­po­rate al­le­giance also has a price. Af­ter years of pledg­ing that it would not share in­for­ma­tion about users with Facebook, which al­ready has dig­i­tal dossiers on its own 1.7 bil­lion users, What­sApp re­vised its pri­vacy state­ment in Au­gust to say it would do ex­actly that. That means Facebook knows whom What­sApp users con­tact and their phone num­bers. Some users com­plained, but Koum said that he had not seen a shift in be­hav­ior. “In terms of se­cu­rity and pri­vacy, what peo­ple care about the most is the pri­vacy of their mes­sages,” he said.

The video ser­vice is well in­te­grated and adds a few twists. Users can move around the thumb­nail video show­ing what their cor­re­spon­dent sees and flick a video call in progress to the side to min­i­mize it while check­ing texts or email. Koum said What­sApp re­mained com­mit­ted to se­cu­rity af­ter the US elec­tion of Don­ald Trump as pres­i­dent last week height­ened fears of in­creased sur­veil­lance. Trump, along with some lead­ing con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans and FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey, has ad­vo­cated re­quir­ing tech com­pa­nies to turn over cus­tomer in­for­ma­tion in many cir­cum­stances, a po­si­tion which, if put into law, could re­quire com­pa­nies in­clud­ing What­sApp to com­pletely re­design their ser­vices.

Other coun­tries in­clud­ing China and the United King­dom also take a dim view of en­cryp­tion. But Koum said he not see a ma­jor threat to his ser­vice, not­ing that diplo­mats and of­fi­cials use What­sApp in many coun­tries. “It would be like them shooting them­selves in the foot.” — Reuters

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