Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram

So, Facebook is planning to integrate WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram ( https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-47001460 ). Facebook has owned Instagram since 2010 and WhatsApp since 2014, and Messenger was a Facebook original. What could possibly be wrong with that? I mean, everyone would want them to, right? And they do own them.

However, for me it’s not so much about the doing but how it is done. Taking just WhatsApp, it always marketed itself as encrypted end to end (E2EE). This is a great concept in these days of rampant surveillance but at least currently, this is only true where messages stay within WhatsApp.

One of the founders of WhatsApp quit and announced that we should all delete Facebook. Riding on the wave of the Cambridge Analytica scandal this added flames to the already burning fire.

Now we learn of Facebook’s plans to better integrate WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram, making it easy for users of each to interact with users of any of the apps. Presumably Facebook will be core to this data merging.  But what of E2EE?

Without searching for documentation on exactly how each app works E2EE is supposed to ensure that messages sent are encrypted before sending and not decrypted until receipt. Ok, this works fine in theory and if apps do what they say on the tin it works in practice provided you remain aware of limitations, not least that once a message is decrypted for display then anything that can get at that display can logically get at the decrypted message.

And here’s the thing. If, say, you send a message from WhatsApp to Messenger then unless the keys are shared between the apps the message will need to be decrypted (and possibly re-encrypted) in order to send between these disparate apps. Think of it this way: The sending WhatsApp app encrypts in a way that the receiving WhatsApp app can decrypt and the message is never touched in between. But if there is an exchange that takes a message from WhatsApp and sends to Instagram then unless Instagram can directly decrypt the encrypted WhatsApp message the exchange needs to decrypt the message prior to sending it onwards. This exchange will presumably be buried deep within Facebook and, if so (and bear in mind this is a worse case scenario – I expect these guys have thought this through and will uphold E2EE. And, yes, pigs really do fly) the decrypted text will be accessible to Facebook. This is my worry here. Mind you, when I want to discuss something in private I do use other means…

There are of course issues with E2EE after a message has been received if, say you synchronise to cloud storage. Messages here will not be re-encrypted by the original app as it is no longer playing. They may be encrypted somehow before storage in the cloud but there are no guarantees here and it will depend entirely on the cloud service being used. However, assuming you are security aware and do not send any such messages off to cloud storage, can one really rely on E2EE in any shape or form once apps begin to pass messages between themselves? I doubt it but time will tell. Maybe I’m being too opsec here…