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WhatsApp encrypts all messages as access blamed for Egypt’s Free Basics ban

WhatsApp has launched end-to-end encryption of all messages sent across its service.

The security measure has been rolled out as it emerges that the encryption of another Facebook-owned service – Free Basics – is the likely factor behind the ban the service was hit with in Egypt in December 2015. Around this time, the zero-rating service was under intense scrutiny in many markets – particularly India – for going against net neutrality principles by offering free access to certain web content.

The Egyptian government was reportedly unsatisfied with the level of access that it had to Free Basics, which launched in Egypt in October before its ban two months later. At the time, the government claimed that the ban was due to Etisalat’s temporary permit. Neither Facebook nor Etisalat have provided further comment on the matter.

Mohamed Hanafi, a spokesman for Egypt’s Ministry of Communication, stated that “the national telecommunication regulator saw the service as harmful to companies and their competitors”.

At the time that the service was suspended, Facebook claimed that 3 million Egyptians – 1 million of whom were new internet users – were using the service. The company had boosted Free Basics’ security features prior to the Egyptian launch in response to criticism that it needed to protect user privacy.

Privacy has been touted as the motivating factor behind WhatsApp’s new encryption, with founders Brian Acton and Jan Koum stating: “While we recognise the important work of law enforcement in keeping people safe, efforts to weaken encryption risk exposing people’s information to abuse.”

These comments cannot fail but evoke the recently abandoned lawsuit between the FBI and Apple, in which the former was demanding to be allowed access to data stored on a locked iPhone via an electronic workaround. Koum had previously stated that “a conversation about a back door is not productive as we will not do that.”

WhatsApp was temporarily blocked in Brazil last year, apparently for refusing to release data pertinent to a legal case in which a drug trafficker was believed to have sent messages via the service.

With regard to its new encryption, the company said: “If nothing is done, more of people’s digital information and communication will be vulnerable to attack in the years to come.” On a personal note, Koum added: “I grew up in the USSR during communist rule and the fact that people couldn’t speak freely is one of the reasons my family moved to the US.”

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