Facebook is introducing fully encrypted video calling to its WhatsApp messaging app but has downplayed concerns from privacy advocates that it could be forced to offset those security measures should the incoming Trump administration force technology providers to share information on their users.
The messaging service implemented end-to-end encryption earlier this year, making it technically impossible for the company or other third parties like the government to read messages or listen to calls made by its users, of which there are more than a billion.
The video calls feature also adopts the security measure but WhatsApp will still be able to monitor other data assets such as a user’s list of contacts. That it has taken the app until now to launch the feature reflects its cautious approach to product development, which saw group chats arrive two years after the service launched in 2009 followed by voice calls four years after that.
In an interview with Reuters, WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum explained that advancements in phone cameras, battery life and bandwidth had made video calls a possibility for a large chunk of the service’s users, even those with lower spec smartphones. He explained that app is able to piggyback on Facebook’s servers and bandwidth around the world to power both video and voice calls, a benefit he hopes quickens the spread of the app.
“We obviously try to be in tune with what our users want,” Koum continued. “We’re obsessed with making sure that voice and video work well even on low-end phones.”
Video calls will be introduced to 180 countries to both Android and iOS versions of the app. Like with voice calls, all a user has to do to start a video one is select the “video call” option from the screen. Once started, callers can flick between the forward-facing and rear cameras as well as mute.
For all the talk of it improving the user experience, the introduction of video calls will stoke privacy advocates, who are already wary of the app and have been ruffled by statements made by president elect Donald Trump around heightened surveillance. After years of claiming it would not share user information with Facebook, WhatsApp u-turned on the issue in August when it revised its privacy statement. It means that the world’s largest social network knows whom WhatsApp users contact and their phone numbers.
Despite the initial backlash, Koum claimed he has not had a negligible impact on how people use the app.
“In terms of security and privacy, what people care about the most is the privacy of their messages,” he continued.
Those concerns are likely to come to the boil over the coming months in the wake of the election of Trump last week. The president elect along with some of North America’s leading politicians and and FBI director James Comey, have called on tech companies to share customer information. Should these demands be turned into law under Trump’s administration then it would require companies such as WhatsApp and Facebook to overhaul their services.
Koum argued that it won’t get that far, claiming that diplomats and officials use the app he co-founded in many countries.
“It would be like them shooting themselves in the foot.”