What Vodacom and MTN know about your WhatsApp messages

WhatsApp is a popular way for South Africans to send messages and make voice calls to one another.

Over the last year, WhatsApp started to add encryption to those conversations to protect the security and privacy of its subscribers.

The New York Times reported this enhanced security made it impossible for the US Justice Department to read or eavesdrop on WhatsApp conversations.

According to the report, government officials in the United States are privately debating about how to resolve a prolonged stand-off with WhatsApp over its encryption.

The Guardian reported on 14 March that “within weeks, Facebook’s messaging service WhatsApp plans to expand its secure messaging service so that voice calls are also encrypted, in addition to its existing privacy features”.

This raises the question: What is happening in South Africa, and is your WhatsApp communication visible to the authorities?

WhatsApp interception in South Africa

The Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (RICA) requires mobile operators to provide interception capabilities to law enforcement agencies.

RICA also provides guidelines as to when a mobile network operator has to hand over information to an agency and allow them to intercept communications.

Vodacom and MTN were asked whether they had received requests to intercept WhatsApp conversations – they did not answer the question.

When MyBroadband followed up, Vodacom said: “We are not at liberty to disclose this information.”

WhatsApp conversations encrypted end-to-end

Vodacom said it is impossible for it to intercept WhatsApp text messages or WhatsApp voice calls.

“We can see that a messages has been sent and voice call has been made on the network, but we cannot intercept it or decode it,” said Vodacom.

MTN SA CIO Benjamin Marais said the services offered by WhatsApp are encrypted end-to-end, which makes it impossible to decipher.

More on WhatsApp

WhatsApp security under fire: EFF

WhatsApp full end-to-end encryption announced

WhatsApp regulation in SA – what Vodacom and MTN really want

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What Vodacom and MTN know about your WhatsApp messages