As reported here earlier, a common, but pervasive exploit means that you should basically assume someone is snooping on all of your text messages. This, combined with the FBI’s push on Apple to help them crack a terrorist’s phone means that your smartphone communications are a lot less secure than you think they are.
Enter WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption. They’re not the first to offer this kind of communication. But with nearly half a billion users, WhatsApp is by far the giant in the field. So what is end-to-end encryption and what does it mean for your communications?
In short, end-to-end encryption is just what it sounds like. The message -- be it email, text or what have you -- is encrypted on your device, the device of the person on the other end and everywhere in between. Why is this important? Because if something is only encrypted on one device, it’s not very encrypted at all. What’s more, by encrypting the message as it travels from one device to another, you’re ensuring that, in the event someone is snooping, all they’re going to get is a bunch of encrypted data.
Your text messages, to put it simply, don’t offer anything close to that. Nor do Facebook private messages or emails, unless you’re specifically taking measures to encrypt them. Most people think of emails as being like letters sent through the mail, when in fact, they’re much more akin to a postcard. Sure, anyone can’t read them, but a lot more people than you probably think can.
What’s more, third-party messaging apps like WhatsApp, Telegram and others have another advantage: There is no charge for messaging via WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or Telegram even if the recipient is overseas, so you can text your international friends as much as you’d like.
But until your mobile provider gets more serious about your communication security, these are a must. Is anyone snooping? Maybe not, but you have no way of knowing. With end-to-end encryption, it doesn’t even matter if they’re snooping. They won’t find out anything useful anyway.
Nicholas Pell is a freelance writer based in Hollywood, CA. He writes about music, personal finance and technology for publications such as LA Weekly, Salon and Business Insider. He’s been online since the days of Usenet groups and bulletin board systems.