WhatsApp’s promise of end-to-end encryption may be a complete lie

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WhatsApp encryption message
WhatsApp says no one — not even WhatsApp — can read your messages.
Image: Killian Bell/Cult of Mac

WhatsApp promises to protect every one of its 2 billion users with end-to-end encryption that ensures their messages cannot be seen by anyone outside of the original conversation. But does it live up to that promise?

A new report alleges that the Facebook-owned messaging platform uses artificial intelligence and more than 1,000 contract workers to examine “millions of pieces of users’ content” using “special Facebook software.”

That’s despite Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg telling the U.S. Senate in 2018 that “we don’t see any of the content in WhatsApp.”

When you start a new conversation in WhatsApp, the app tells you that your “messages and calls are end-to-end encrypted,” and that “no one outside of this chat, not even WhatsApp, can read or listen to them.”

Tapping that message takes you to WhatsApp’s privacy policy, where the platform further reiterates its promise to secure your data and prevent it from “falling into the wrong hands.” It adds that “your messages are secured with a lock, and only the recipient and you have the special key” to open them.

It turns out, however, that those claims may not be entirely true.

WhatsApp may be reading your messages

A report from ProPublica alleges that WhatsApp employs more than 1,000 contractors in Dublin, Singapore, and Texas who examine user content. They are said to use “special Facebook software” to read the protected messages.

“These contractors pass judgment on whatever flashes on their screen — claims of everything from fraud or spam to child porn and potential terrorist plotting — typically in less than a minute,” the report reads.

This sounds similar to the moderation system used for Facebook and Instagram, which aren’t encrypted. Some 15,000 employees sift through content in an effort to weed out abusive and otherwise prohibited content.

The report comes after WhatsApp’s use of external contractors and its apparent account monitoring were first uncovered in a whistleblower complaint filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in 2020.

WhatsApp denies moderation

Despite the similarities between the moderation system employed by Facebook itself and the screening practices used by WhatsApp, the latter denies that it moderates content on its messaging platform.

Instead, WhatsApp director of communications Carl Woog told ProPublica that the purpose of contractor reviews is to identify and remove “the worst” abusers who are using WhatsApp to spread spam, make threats, and more.

Facebook insisted in a statement issued on Tuesday that WhatsApp is built “in a manner that limits the data we collect” while still allowing content to be investigated when the situation calls for it, like when it is reported by users.

That may be the case, but it still goes against WhatsApp’s promise of complete end-to-end encryption that prevents your messages from being read by anyone outside of the conversation — “even WhatsApp.”