WhatsApp And Its End-to-end Encryption Get Love From An Unusual Quarter: International Diplomats

from the pass-it-on dept

Encryption remains a hot issue, with politicians repeatedly claiming that it allows bad people to hide bad things, although there isn't much evidence this is really a problem. More recently, WhatsApp has become a favorite target since it introduced end-to-end encryption that allegedly not even the company can decrypt. David Cameron vaguely threatened to block it, and Brazil actually tried. Against that background, the following story from the Guardian offers a welcome contrast of government officials using -- and loving -- WhatsApp, not least for its end-to-end encryption:

The rise of WhatsApp diplomacy is transforming the negotiating chamber. There are countless groups of allies and virtual huddles, exchanges over policy statements and fine print, and fair amounts of banter and even emojis (Vladimir Putin is referred to by widespread use of a grey alien avatar).

"You can form small groups of like-minded allies, take photos of annotated documents, ask people what they think without the whole room knowing," a senior western diplomat said.

The tool is useful for communicating with allies who might not be sitting close to them, diplomats say, as well as for agreeing negotiating tactics during difficult sessions and for organising break-out huddles in a way that avoids offending those left out.
The article goes on to describe some real-life situations in which WhatsApp chats offered a vital channel during diplomatic negotiations. It also notes some of the ways the app is being used, for example to make discreet requests like "please speak at the plenary in support of x" or "let's meet outside to discuss this," and the rather more dramatic "please interrupt this person."

This isn't the first hint that WhatsApp is becoming an important tool for international diplomacy. Back in May of this year, a Guardian news item about an internal report into the problems within the UK's Foreign Office included the following information:

The report also finds that rather than make use of specially-tailored encryption, many British diplomats reportedly use WhatsApp to discuss sensitive topics such as the bloody conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.
The author of the report, Tom Fletcher, a former British ambassador to Lebanon, is also quoted in the latest WhatsApp story, where he says:
The smartphone is now as essential a part of the modern diplomat's armoury as courage, patience and a strong stomach. But it is also a threat to the diplomat -- heaven forbid that leaders should start WhatsApping each other direct, without needing to go through their diplomatic envoys.
That's one potential problem with the new WhatsApp diplomacy. Another is that diplomats may start to depend on the app, and take its security for granted. But as Techdirt reported back in April, WhatsApp's end-to-end encryption is not quite as secure as people might think. Moreover, if the program became the de facto tool for communicating among diplomats, a great deal of important information would be passing through it that many governments would dearly love to know. If that happens, the pressure on WhatsApp to provide backdoors to allow the authorities to eavesdrop on those conversations will become even greater. It would be relatively easy to do that: the app is not open source, so there's no way to check. Let's hope that diplomats are beginning to understand why that would be such a bad idea, and will add their voice opposing any such short-sighted moves.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

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