WhatsApp has launched a new ad campaign promoting its privacy and security features, as it continues to face backlash from both users and the public.
The ads stress the importance of end-to-end encryption, which is used to ensure that only the sender and recipient of messages are able to read them. As such, it is technically impossible for WhatsApp to see any messages that are sent through its app – or to make them available to law enforcement or governments.
Will Cathcart, the head of WhatsApp, said that the company had launched what is its first global ad campaign in response to those challenges – and to promote encryption as a key technology for everyone who is using messaging services.
“End to end encryption means that if you send something to someone or you say something to someone, no one – other than the person you sent it to – can hear what you're saying or see what you're saying,” he said. “Not even WhatsApp, not Facebook, not us. And we think that's really, really, really important.
“It's a really critical tool for things like journalists, activists, whistleblowers, we think people get that. But we believe it is a really a critical tool. beyond that. It's for everyone.”
In an interview with The Independent, he pointed to various uses for encryption, including protecting bank details, passwords, health information and payment data.
Mr Cathcart admitted that the launch of the campaign had been partly inspired by the rollout of WhatsApp’s new terms, and the controversy over the relationship with Facebook that ensued. While WhatsApp said that the new conditions covered only a small amount of shopping information that could be shared with its parent company, users were concerned that the feature could mean their conversations would be sent to Facebook.
“We were not clear enough,” he said of the controversy. “We got much, much clearer when we saw the confusion – that's on us.” That “confusion” served as an “extra reason” to want to launch the campaign, he said.
Mr Cathcart also said that initial “confusion” had largely been dissipated, and that the “overwhelming majority” of people have now accepted the new terms.
But he said that the campaign was also launched in response to the criticism of end-to-end encryption that has come from people including Priti Patel, the UK’s home secretary. She has argued that the strength of the technology used in WhatsApp and other services mean that law enforcement are kept from important data that could be used to prevent or respond to crime.
As well as launching the campaign, Mr Cathcart said that the company is “definitely talking to governments all around the world, including in the UK, and making the point that end to end encryption is absolutely a good thing”.
“It protects the security and safety of citizens in countries and it is absolutely essential if we are going to have all of our lives be digital over the next few years in an increasingly hostile world full of hackers and hostile governments it is it is critical. So we're absolutely making that point to governments everywhere,” he said.
Responding to the campaign, the Home Office said that it is in favour of strong encryption but warned that Facebook and WhatsApp’s use of it could make it harder for law enforcement.
“Social media companies like WhatsApp have a moral duty to protect children from horrific abuse on their platforms,” said Ms Patel.
“Facebook’s end-to-end encryption plans will be detrimental to law enforcement’s ability to tackle this abuse, as well as the risk posed by terrorists who wish to inflict maximum harm on the public.
“We must work together to find a mutually acceptable way to protect public safety without compromising user privacy.”
In addition to the ads,Mr Cathcart has recently revealed a range of privacy-focused features, including new tools that will allow WhatsApp messages to automatically delete themselves. He said that similar features will be coming in the future, and that WhatsApp was working to ensure that conversations are regarded as more temporary, rather than collecting records of every conversation forever.
“e do think a lot of people will choose these options, we do think it will become the norm,” he said. “Over time, obviously – we're not there yet.
“But I think as this becomes easier, people realise the benefits of not keeping records of everything forever. Because it keeps their messages private, because it gives them extra security benefits, because it lets them speak freely.”