Can WhatsApp moderators really read your encrypted texts? Yes ... if you forward them to the abuse dept

Where did people think spam and harassment reports were going?


Facebook's WhatsApp states its messages are protected by the Signal encryption protocol. A report published today by investigative non-profit ProPublica contends that WhatsApp communication is less private than users understand or expect.

"WhatsApp assures users that no one can see their messages — but the company has an extensive monitoring operation and regularly shares personal information with prosecutors," ProPublica claims.

The ProPublica report says that WhatsApp contractors "sift through streams of private messages, images and videos that have been reported by WhatsApp users as improper and then screened by the company’s artificial intelligence systems."

It also says that parent company Facebook downplays the information it collects from WhatsApp – metadata – and how much of that metadata gets shared with law enforcement authorities.

WhatsApp in a statement emailed to The Register pushed back against ProPublica's claims.

"WhatsApp provides a way for people to report spam or abuse, which includes sharing the most recent messages in a chat," a WhatsApp spokesperson said. "This feature is important for preventing the worst abuse on the internet. We strongly disagree with the notion that accepting reports a user chooses to send us is incompatible with end-to-end encryption."

In other words, ProPublica is not disputing the technical integrity of the end-to-end encryption applied to WhatsApp messages. Rather it's arguing that WhatsApp has created a system that encourages its own users to undo its privacy promises by reporting unlawful or objectionable message content to WhatsApp contract moderators. And it suggests that users "likely understand or expect" something else – which is not the same thing as having actual data about what users actually understand and expect.

Report earns sub-par grades

The report has not been well-received by Facebook's former chief security officer Alex Stamos, now an adjunct professor at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, who described the article as "terrible."

"It is inconsistent with much of what ProPublica has written in the past, it incorrectly conflates responsible reporting mechanisms with proactive moderation, and creates the wrong incentive structure for E2EE products," he said via Twitter.

Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, offered a similarly disappointed assessment.

"There are a lot of problems at WhatsApp, but 'the existence of abuse reporting undermines the promise of end-to-end encryption' is an impressively bad take," she said via Twitter. "If I receive a WhatsApp message and then send it to the WhatsApp abuse team because it's abusive, I am not undermining [end-to-end] encryption any more than if I screenshot the message and post it here for everyone to see."

In some ways, ProPublica's report echoes the recent revelations that Swiss email provider ProtonMail reported a user's IP address and device details to Swiss authorities in response to a legal demand, despite having said it doesn't regularly record IP addresses. The company is still capable of accessing user IP and device information and did so when required by law, despite some website wording that many misconstrued as promising non-cooperation with authorities.

ProPublica almost certainly is correct that people misunderstand WhatsApp's privacy promises. But WhatsApp is not alone among the companies that market privacy without really trying to clear up those misunderstandings – look at Apple casting itself as a privacy champion while planning, until recently, to scour customer devices for illegal child sex abuse material.

The differences between privacy and anonymity, between message contents and metadata, and between encryption and unobserved communication, can be baffling to those not steeped in technical minutiae, the law, and the imprecision of corporate privacy claims.

So people's expectations shouldn't be given too much weight unless there's evidence they've been misled. And ProPublica's report doesn't provide that beyond describing the vagueness of Facebook's and WhatsApp's privacy commitments. Certainly more clarity would be worthwhile, but does anyone really expect WhatsApp to ignore CSAM or other illegal content traversing its network?

While we await marketing statements to accurately describe reality, here's a workable model for the internet: two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead and neither used a third-party service provider. If you want the dictionary definition of privacy – being unobserved – don't look for it online, it's the greatest surveillance mechanism ever devised. ®

Similar topics


Other stories you might like

  • Chip shortage forces temporary Raspberry Pi 4 price rise for the first time

    Ten-buck increase for 2GB model 'not here to stay' says Upton

    The price of a 2GB Raspberry Pi 4 single-board computer is going up $10, and its supply is expected to be capped at seven million devices this year due to the ongoing global chip shortage.

    Demand for components is outstripping manufacturing capacity at the moment; pre-pandemic, assembly lines were being red-lined as cloud giants and others snapped up parts fresh out of the fabs, and the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak really threw a spanner in the works, so to speak, exacerbating the situation.

    Everything from cars to smartphones have been affected by semiconductor supply constraints, including Raspberry Pis, it appears. Stock is especially tight for the Raspberry Pi Zero and the 2GB Raspberry Pi 4 models, we're told. As the semiconductor crunch shows no signs of letting up, the Raspberry Pi project is going to bump up the price for one particular model.

    Continue reading
  • Uncle Sam to clip wings of Pegasus-like spyware – sorry, 'intrusion software' – with proposed export controls

    Surveillance tech faces trade limits as America syncs policy with treaty obligations

    More than six years after proposing export restrictions on "intrusion software," the US Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) has formulated a rule that it believes balances the latitude required to investigate cyber threats with the need to limit dangerous code.

    The BIS on Wednesday announced an interim final rule that defines when an export license will be required to distribute what is basically commercial spyware, in order to align US policy with the 1996 Wassenaar Arrangement, an international arms control regime.

    The rule [PDF] – which spans 65 pages – aims to prevent the distribution of surveillance tools, like NSO Group's Pegasus, to countries subject to arms controls, like China and Russia, while allowing legitimate security research and transactions to continue. Made available for public comment over the next 45 days, the rule is scheduled to be finalized in 90 days.

    Continue reading
  • Global IT spending to hit $4.5 trillion in 2022, says Gartner

    The future's bright, and expensive

    Corporate technology soothsayer Gartner is forecasting worldwide IT spending will hit $4.5tr in 2022, up 5.5 per cent from 2021.

    The strongest growth is set to come from enterprise software, which the analyst firm expects to increase by 11.5 per cent in 2022 to reach a global spending level of £670bn. Growth has fallen slightly, though. In 2021 it was 13.6 per cent for this market segment. The increase was driven by infrastructure software spending, which outpaced application software spending.

    The largest chunk of IT spending is set to remain communication services, which will reach £1.48tr next year, after modest growth of 2.1 per cent. The next largest category is IT services, which is set to grow by 8.9 per cent to reach $1.29tr over the next year, according to the analysts.

    Continue reading
  • Memory maker Micron moots $150bn mega manufacturing moneybag

    AI and 5G to fuel demand for new plants and R&D

    Chip giant Micron has announced a $150bn global investment plan designed to support manufacturing and research over the next decade.

    The memory maker said it would include expansion of its fabrication facilities to help meet demand.

    As well as chip shortages due to COVID-19 disruption, the $21bn-revenue company said it wanted to take advantage of the fact memory and storage accounts for around 30 per cent of the global semiconductor industry today.

    Continue reading
  • China to allow overseas investment in VPNs but Beijing keeps control of the generally discouraged tech

    Foreign ownership capped at 50%

    After years of restricting the use and ownership of VPNs, Beijing has agreed to let foreign entities hold up to a 50 per cent stake in domestic VPN companies.

    China has simultaneously a huge market and strict rules for VPNs as the country's Great Firewall attempts to keep its residents out of what it deems undesirable content and influence, such as Facebook or international news outlets.

    And while VPN technology is not illegal per se (it's just not practical for multinationals and other entities), users need a licence to operate one.

    Continue reading
  • Microsoft unveils Android apps for Windows 11 (for US users only)

    Windows Insiders get their hands on the Windows Subsystem for Android

    Microsoft has further teased the arrival of the Windows Subsystem for Android by detailing how the platform will work via a newly published document for Windows Insiders.

    The document, spotted by inveterate Microsoft prodder "WalkingCat" makes for interesting reading for developers keen to make their applications work in the Windows Subsystem for Android (WSA).

    WSA itself comprises the Android OS based on the Android Open Source Project 1.1 and, like the Windows Subsystem for Linux, runs in a virtual machine.

    Continue reading
  • Software Freedom Conservancy sues TV maker Vizio for GPL infringement

    Companies using GPL software should meet their obligations, lawsuit says

    The Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC), a non-profit which supports and defends free software, has taken legal action against Californian TV manufacturer Vizio Inc, claiming "repeated failures to fulfill even the basic requirements of the General Public License (GPL)."

    Member projects of the SFC include the Debian Copyright Aggregation Project, BusyBox, Git, GPL Compliance Project for Linux Developers, Homebrew, Mercurial, OpenWrt, phpMyAdmin, QEMU, Samba, Selenium, Wine, and many more.

    The GPL Compliance Project is described as "comprised of copyright holders in the kernel, Linux, who have contributed to Linux under its license, the GPLv2. These copyright holders have formally asked Conservancy to engage in compliance efforts for their copyrights in the Linux kernel."

    Continue reading
  • DRAM, it stacks up: SK hynix rolls out 819GB/s HBM3 tech

    Kit using the chips to appear next year at the earliest

    Korean DRAM fabber SK hynix has developed an HBM3 DRAM chip operating at 819GB/sec.

    HBM3 (High Bandwidth Memory 3) is a third generation of the HBM architecture which stacks DRAM chips one above another, connects them by vertical current-carrying holes called Through Silicon Vias (TSVs) to a base interposer board, via connecting micro-bumps, upon which is fastened a processor that accesses the data in the DRAM chip faster than it would through the traditional CPU socket interface.

    Seon-yong Cha, SK hynix's senior vice president for DRAM development, said: "Since its launch of the world's first HBM DRAM, SK hynix has succeeded in developing the industry's first HBM3 after leading the HBM2E market. We will continue our efforts to solidify our leadership in the premium memory market."

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021