Prosecutors struggle with WhatsApp encryption as iPhone case continues

The popular mobile messaging app WhatsApp is increasingly using encryption that is impeding the government's ability to access users' information, The New York Times reported. The situation mirrors Apple's battle against the U.S. Department of Justice over law enforcement access to the iPhone.

WhatsApp, which was acquired by Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) for $21.8 billion, has added encryption to its web-based messaging and voice services over the last year, the Times reported, "making it impossible for the Justice Department to read or eavesdrop, even with a judge's wiretap order." Indeed, the Justice Department is internally debating how to proceed in one ongoing case in which a wiretap was obtained but WhatsApp's encryption can't be hacked.

Prosecutors have yet to decide how to proceed, but may take WhatsApp to court to force the company to comply with its investigations.

The Justice Department is already involved in a high-profile court battle with Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) over privacy and encryption. A California judge ordered the company to unlock an iPhone 5c belonging to one of the killers involved in December's mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.; Apple has appealed the ruling saying it "has implications far beyond the legal case at hand" and that creating a "back door" to its devices would enable criminals and governments to violate its customers' privacy.

There are clear differences between the two cases, however, as the Times notes. Apple is fighting an order to unlock a specific device to help investigators, while WhatsApp's encryption prevents prosecutors from listening to phone calls and reading messages. And the Times notes that the current case involving WhatsApp's service is not a terrorism investigation.

But as the Guardian noted this week, WhatsApp plans to expand its secure messaging service to encrypt voice calls in addition to existing privacy features. Facebook, Google and Snapchat are also working to increase their privacy technology in efforts that "could antagonize authorities just as much as Apple's more secure iPhones," the Guardian notes. So while Apple's case continues to make headlines, law enforcement authorities may soon be taking more tech companies to court over privacy and encryption issues.

For more:
- see this New York Times report

Related articles:
DoJ: Apple 'deliberately raised technological barriers' in San Bernardino iPhone case
NY judge sides with Apple in case similar to San Bernardino
Verizon sides with Apple against 'backdoor' into phones for law enforcement
Carriers decline to join Facebook, Twitter in backing Apple's defiance of FBI
Apple's Cook opposes order to unlock iPhone linked to San Bernardino shootings