Skip to Content

Apple and WhatsApp’s Encryption Is a Stimulus Package for the Phone Hacking Industry

Law enforcement will probably spend more time and money hacking phones after moves by Apple and WhatsApp to strengthen their encryption.
April 6, 2016

During its recent conflict with Apple over its refusal to help the FBI unlock iPhones, the U.S. Department of Justice dismissed the company’s claims to be defending customer privacy as a “marketing strategy.” Whatever Apple’s motivations, its eventual victory after the FBI backed down certainly didn’t hurt its public image. But it’s not the only company whose business stands to gain from the rift between the government and tech companies over encryption.

The FBI dropped its assault on Apple after an unnamed third party showed the agency how to hack into the iPhone at the heart of the case. Companies that sell hacking tools and services to governments and law enforcement can probably expect business to pick up significantly over the coming months.

News that WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, has now upgraded the encryption protecting the messages of its one billion users could also help drum up new business for the law enforcement hacking trade. The company will no longer be able to decrypt any of the 40 billion messages sent via WhatsApp each day. If cops want to read someone’s messages, they will need to get into their phone.

During Apple’s recent conflict with the FBI, many security experts have said that rather than compel Apple to unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone, the bureau should try to unlock it themselves by any means necessary, including enlisting contractors who build hacking tools. But there are well documented and undesirable side effects to the hacking tools trade.

One company the FBI has done business with, called Hacking Team, provides a good example. It offers software for hacking phones and computers and has worked with multiple U.S. agencies. But Hacking Team’s wares have also been used by other government and law enforcement clients to suppress political opponents and journalists.

Groups such as the ACLU that have been firm in their support of Apple’s stance on encryption have cautioned in the past that tools like those offered by Hacking Team are trickling down to local law enforcement, and that new surveillance technologies are almost inevitably abused. They point to the recent explosion in the use of “stingrays,” which intercept cellular calls and messages, and which have been widely deployed by local police and sheriffs without warrants.

Legislation was already needed to define and restrict the ways that law enforcement can use hacking tools. It is needed even more urgently now that Apple, WhatsApp, and the FBI have put the spotlight not only on the ways encryption shuts the cops out, but also the companies they enlist to help them get into devices anyway.

(Read more: “The Growth Industry Helping Governments Hack Terrorists, Criminals—and Political Opponents,” Bloomberg)

Keep Reading

Most Popular

AV2.0 autonomous vehicles adapt to unknown road conditions concept
AV2.0 autonomous vehicles adapt to unknown road conditions concept

The big new idea for making self-driving cars that can go anywhere

The mainstream approach to driverless cars is slow and difficult. These startups think going all-in on AI will get there faster.

biomass with Charm mobile unit in background
biomass with Charm mobile unit in background

Inside Charm Industrial’s big bet on corn stalks for carbon removal

The startup used plant matter and bio-oil to sequester thousands of tons of carbon. The question now is how reliable, scalable, and economical this approach will prove.

images created by Google Imagen
images created by Google Imagen

The dark secret behind those cute AI-generated animal images

Google Brain has revealed its own image-making AI, called Imagen. But don't expect to see anything that isn't wholesome.

AGI is just chatter for now concept
AGI is just chatter for now concept

The hype around DeepMind’s new AI model misses what’s actually cool about it

Some worry that the chatter about these tools is doing the whole field a disservice.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.