How will Egypt’s govt react to the new WhatsApp encryption system?

The Facebook-owned company WhatsApp announced on Tuesday that it is providing its one billion users with a new comprehensive system of data encryption to protect their privacy and personal communications, known as “end-to-end encryption.” All that it required of a user to access this new system is downloading the latest version of the application.

News of this increased privacy and data-protection is largely welcomed in Egypt by WhatsApp users, a figure estimated to number several millions. However, reactions from the Egyptian government, in terms of its security concerns, and from Egyptian telecommunications companies, who are concerned that free VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) services may be eating-away at their customer base, have yet to be issued.

On its blog, WhatsApp released a statement clarifying that the company “has always prioritized making your data and communication as secure as possible.” It added that it has completed the technological development of full end-to-end encryption, making it a leader in safeguarding private communications.

When using the latest version of the app, all calls, messages, photos, videos, files, voice messages and group chats will now be protected with the new encryption system.

“When you send a message, the only person who can read it is the person or group chat that you send that message to. No one can see inside that message,” the company explained. “Not cybercriminals. Not hackers. Not oppressive regimes. Not even us. End-to-end encryption helps make communication via WhatsApp private – sort of like a face-to-face conversation.”

WhatsApp has been developing this new system of encryption since November 2014, in coordination with programmers involved with the open source, non-profit voice-calling and messaging application Signal.

Ramy Raoof, a member of Signal’s Arabic team, told Mada Masr that “Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, could previously access or read any and all communications that its users had sent via this application – if it wanted to do so, or if requested to do so.”

Raoof added that, for the purpose of ensuring its users’ privacy, “WhatsApp had reached out to Open Whisper Systems, the nonprofit software group producing Signal, and signed a partnership in November 2014 to integrate the end-to-end encryption protocol into WhatsApp’s communications services.”

The IT specialist added that this new system of encryption gives WhatsApp a competitive advantage over other VOIP applications such as Viber, Skype, and Facebook Messenger – apps that “generally don’t have a good reputation in terms of privacy and content protection.”

“Like WhatsApp, any communication company can reach out to protocol services” if it chooses to protect its users with similar systems of encryption, Raoof explained.

In Egypt, WhatsApp is one of the most widely-used VOIP applications. Over the past three years, there has reportedly been an exponential growth of WhatsApp users nationwide, although the exact number of Egyptian users is not known.

Citing global analytics, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported in January 2014 that applications including Facebook Messenger, LINE, SnapChat, and WhatsApp witnessed a combined 203 percent growth in their users over the past 12 months.

Regarding the growing popularity of WhatsApp, and other similar applications, in Egypt, Raoof commented, “The Egyptian state has a bit of enmity towards these VOIP services, because they cut into the revenues of local telecommunications companies.”

He went on to add that while the government officially opposes, and has even outlawed this kind of  encryption of communications by virtue of the Telecommunication Regulation Law 10/2003, it would struggle to ban apps which use encryption.  

Raoof argued that if the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA) or other state authorities seeks to take action against such encryption, for security reasons, or due to other concerns, “it could attempt to intercept these communications, to weaken or interrupt signals and transmissions. State authorities may also attempt to disable certain features of applications.”

“Politically, it would be easy for the state to issue a ban against these applications; but technologically and financially it would be extremely difficult to implement,” particularly because there are many means by which a determined user may bypass such a ban (changing IPs, use of proxy servers, etc.), Raoof clarified.  

A specific ban against WhatsApp’s new encrypted services would require a court order from Egypt’s judiciary, he added. Yet this may also be ineffective, similar to when the Administrative Court issued a verdict banning access to online porn sites from the country in May 2015 but the state was never able to enforce it.

“If they seek to ban encrypted communications, then they would have to move against Google and other countless other services as well, for their use of encrypting technology, such as the HTTPS. protocol for secure online communications,” Raoof said.

He concluded by calling for the amendment of “Egypt’s invasive Telecommunications Regulation Law, which stipulates the banning of encryption technologies, and for ‘kill-switch’ control over national telecommunications,” as transpired during the total internet blackout from January 28 to February 1 during the 2011 popular uprising against Hosni Mubarak.


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