Amid Privacy Concerns, Secure Video Calling Added by Facebook’s Whatsapp

In a move that comes as privacy advocates worry about the potential for stepped-up government surveillance under a Trump administration, one of the world’s most popular means of communication, Facebook’s WhatsApp, has added fully encrypted video calling to its messaging app from  Monday.

By the adoption of end-to-end encryption early this year, Whatsapp made it technically impossible for the company or government authorities to read messages or listen to calls. The messaging platform boasts more than a billion users worldwide.

Though WhatsApp does retain data such as an individual’s list of contacts, the new video calling service will thus provide another means for people to communicate without fear of eavesdropping.

Video calls will be rolled out to 180 countries within hours after the feature was introduced at an event in India, WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum said in an interview.

“We obviously try to be in tune with what our users want. We’re obsessed with making sure that voice and video work well even on low-end phones,” Koum said at the company’s unmarked Mountain View, California headquarters building.

The service has been made viable for a significant proportion of WhatsApp users, even those using inexpensive smartphones by improvements in phone cameras, battery life and bandwidth, Koum told the media.

Microsoft Corp’s Skype offers video calls on multiple platforms and Apple Inc offers its FaceTime video calls to iPhone users. But WhatsApp has been steadily adding more features to what began as a simple chat applications and has built a massive installed base of mobile customers.

Since Facebook bought it in 2014, WhatsApp has operated with some autonomy. Up from 50 when Facebook bought it, Koum and co-founder Brian Acton now have 200 staff, mostly engineers and customer support. Both are longtime Yahoo engineers who started the company in 2009.

For voice and now video, Facebook has allowed WhatsApp to use its servers and bandwidth around the world, Koum said. He said that support will help spread the souped-up WhatsApp much farther and faster.

But the corporate allegiance also has a price. WhatsApp revised its privacy statement in August to say it would share information about users with Facebook after years of pledging that it would not do so. Facebook already has digital dossiers on its own 1.7 billion users. That means Facebook knows whom WhatsApp users contact and their phone numbers.

Koum said that he had not seen a shift in behavior even as some users complained.

“In terms of security and privacy, what people care about the most is the privacy of their messages,” he said.

The video service adds a few twists and is well integrated. Users can flick a video call in progress to the side to minimize it while checking texts or email and can move around the thumbnail video showing what their correspondent sees.

After the U.S. election of Donald Trump as president last week heightened fears of increased surveillance, Koum said WhatsApp remained committed to security.

A dim view of encryption is also taken by other countries including China and the United Kingdom.

(Adapted from Reuters)

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