WhatsApp seized on US allegations against Huawei to defend encryption against the government's demands for backdoors

  • Earlier this week US officials accused Chinese tech giant Huawei of spying for the Chinese government by using telecoms backdoors designed for use by law enforcement.
  • WhatsApp seized on the story as an example of why it shouldn't build backdoors in its encrypted messaging for law enforcement.
  • WhatsApp and its parent company Facebook have been fighting off US government demands to build methods for law enforcement to infiltrate encrypted messaging.
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The US government may have shot itself in the foot in its ongoing struggle to make tech companies give it access to encrypted messages and devices.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that US officials accused Chinese tech giant Huawei of spying through backdoors built in telecoms equipment intended for use by law enforcement.

Although the US has long accused Huawei of spying for the Chinese government, this was the first time it gave a specific detail about how it thinks the company does this, saying it had built equipment capable of tapping into "lawful interception interfaces," backdoors purposefully left in telecoms equipment so it can gain access.

Huawei has repeatedly denied spying for China, and refuted the specific allegations made in the Journal piece, calling them a "smokescreen."

Now a major US tech company is using the government's Huawei allegations to push back against it.

Head of WhatsApp, Will Cathcart did an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, announcing that the Facebook-owned messaging platform has hit 2 billion users. Cathcart also stressed that WhatsApp plans to hold the line against pressure from the US government to build ways to infiltrate WhatsApp encrypted messaging for law enforcement.

A WhatsApp spokesperson specifically pointed the Journal to the Huawei case as an example why WhatsApp shouldn't grant the government's wish. The argument runs that backdoors pose a broad security risk as even if they only intended to be used by law enforcement, they could be exploited by other malicious actors.

Privacy experts also worry backdoors could be used as tools for mass surveillance by authoritarian regimes.

"The US government's concern about possible backdoors in Huawei-built networks only underscores why it is untenable for the government to demand that US-based tech companies create backdoors for domestic law enforcement agencies," Andrew Crocker, Senior Staff Attorney at the digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Business Insider in a statement. "Once built, these mechanisms can be co-opted by governments around the world." 

Facebook isn't the only tech company fending off demands to break encryption. Apple also tangled with the government in 2015 when the FBI demanded it help the agency break into a shooter's iPhone. Apple refused, and eventually the FBI dropped its court case against the company, after saying it had found a third party capable of helping it open the phone.

Last month, the FBI made a similar request which Apple once again denied, prompting President Trump to lash out at the company on Twitter.

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