Before Edward Snowden shed light on the scope of government surveillance in 2013, it was unlikely the average web user cared much about encrypting their online conversations and data.
But nearly three years and a number of high-profile privacy debates later – including the recent Apple versus FBI court battle – tech companies and social networking providers are being put under more pressure to help users protect their communications.
On Tuesday, WhatsApp – the Facebook-owned messaging app used by more than a billion people around the world – switched on full end-to-end encryption for all of its users.
From now on, any messages sent through the app are scrambled into complicated code that no one can decode – not WhatsApp, your Internet provider, the FBI, or cybercriminals.
READ MORE: Can law enforcement legally access data on your smartphone in Canada?
In other words – the only person who can read your messages are you and the person you send them to (and maybe the person looking over your shoulder during your commute).
“The idea is simple: when you send a message, the only person who can read it is the person or group chat that you send that message to. No one can see inside that message,” wrote WhatsApp founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton in a blog post.
“All you need to know is that end-to-end encrypted messages can only be read by the recipients you intend. And if you’re using the latest version of WhatsApp, you don’t have to do a thing to encrypt your messages: end-to-end encryption is on by default and all the time.”
How does it work?
Encryption scrambles your messages into unreadable code that requires a specific key to unscramble it again.
End-to-end encryption simply means only the people on each end of the conversation have the key to unscramble the messages.
WhatsApp has used end-to-end encryption since 2014; however, the security feature now extends to every text message, picture, video, voice call and file sent on the platform.
To make sure you are using end-to-end encryption on WhatsApp, you and the person you are chatting with both have to update your app to the latest version.
If you are both using the most recent version of the app you should see a yellow notification at the top of your chat which will read, “Messages you send to this chat and calls are now secured with end-to-end encryption.”
Who else uses end-to-end encryption?
Apple uses similar end-to-end encryption for its iMessage service.
Google uses encryption extensively to stop attackers from trying to read users’ data – but in many cases the company can access the data itself and will turn it over to authorities when presented with legal orders.
READ MORE: Apple vs. FBI is the first fight in a much bigger war
Newer messaging services like Signal and Wickr also use end-to-end encryption. Telegram, a newer messaging service which recently announced it has 100 million users around the world, also offers end-to-end encryption, but users have to opt in to use it.
But WhatsApp’s decision to employ end-to-end encryption makes it the most widely encrypted messaging tool on the web, thanks to its large user base.
Is all my data safe from spies?
While all of your messages, photos, videos and other WhatsApp communications will be encrypted, some allege other information may still be up for grabs.
That means a hacker may still be able to see when a message was sent, who sent it and who it was sent to.
A ‘landmark’ decision by WhatsApp
WhatsApp’s decision to provide end-to-end encryption to its users comes on the heels of a highly controversial case of data privacy involving iPhone maker Apple.
In February, the FBI asked Apple for its help in hacking an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooting suspects – a request Apple refused to comply with, saying it would create a so-called “back door” into the iPhone and jeopardize user privacy around the world.
But WhatsApp has experienced legal drama of its own. Last month, Brazilian police arrested the vice-president of Facebook in Latin America after WhatsApp refused to give authorities user information to aid a secret investigation involving organized crime and drug trafficking.
READ MORE: The FBI vs Apple case may be over, but the battle is just beginning
In the blog post, Koum and Acton clearly stated WhatsApp’s stance on data privacy, saying that if nothing is done to protect user’s digital information and communication, they will be “more vulnerable to attacks in years to come.”
“While we recognize the important work of law enforcement in keeping people safe, efforts to weaken encryption risk exposing people’s information to abuse from cybercriminals, hackers, and rogue states,” read the blog post.