Back in March, Rolf Weber wrote about a potential vulnerability in the WhatsApp protocol that would allow Facebook to defeat perfect forward secrecy by forcibly change users' keys, allowing it -- or more likely, the government -- to eavesdrop on encrypted messages.
It seems that this vulnerability is real:
WhatsApp has the ability to force the generation of new encryption keys for offline users, unbeknown to the sender and recipient of the messages, and to make the sender re-encrypt messages with new keys and send them again for any messages that have not been marked as delivered.
The recipient is not made aware of this change in encryption, while the sender is only notified if they have opted-in to encryption warnings in settings, and only after the messages have been re-sent. This re-encryption and rebroadcasting effectively allows WhatsApp to intercept and read users' messages.
The security loophole was discovered by Tobias Boelter, a cryptography and security researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. He told the Guardian: "If WhatsApp is asked by a government agency to disclose its messaging records, it can effectively grant access due to the change in keys."
The vulnerability is not inherent to the Signal protocol. Open Whisper Systems' messaging app, Signal, the app used and recommended by whistleblower Edward Snowden, does not suffer from the same vulnerability. If a recipient changes the security key while offline, for instance, a sent message will fail to be delivered and the sender will be notified of the change in security keys without automatically resending the message.
WhatsApp's implementation automatically resends an undelivered message with a new key without warning the user in advance or giving them the ability to prevent it.
Note that it's an attack against current and future messages, and not something that would allow the government to reach into the past. In that way, it is no more troubling than the government hacking your mobile phone and reading your WhatsApp conversations that way.
An unnamed "WhatsApp spokesperson" said that they implemented the encryption this way for usability:
In WhatsApp's implementation of the Signal protocol, we have a "Show Security Notifications" setting (option under Settings > Account > Security) that notifies you when a contact's security code has changed. We know the most common reasons this happens are because someone has switched phones or reinstalled WhatsApp. This is because in many parts of the world, people frequently change devices and Sim cards. In these situations, we want to make sure people's messages are delivered, not lost in transit.
He's technically correct. This is not a backdoor. This really isn't even a flaw. It's a design decision that put usability ahead of security in this particular instance. Moxie Marlinspike, creator of Signal and the code base underlying WhatsApp's encryption, said as much:
Under normal circumstances, when communicating with a contact who has recently changed devices or reinstalled WhatsApp, it might be possible to send a message before the sending client discovers that the receiving client has new keys. The recipient's device immediately responds, and asks the sender to reencrypt the message with the recipient's new identity key pair. The sender displays the "safety number has changed" notification, reencrypts the message, and delivers it.
The WhatsApp clients have been carefully designed so that they will not re-encrypt messages that have already been delivered. Once the sending client displays a "double check mark," it can no longer be asked to re-send that message. This prevents anyone who compromises the server from being able to selectively target previously delivered messages for re-encryption.
The fact that WhatsApp handles key changes is not a "backdoor," it is how cryptography works. Any attempt to intercept messages in transmit by the server is detectable by the sender, just like with Signal, PGP, or any other end-to-end encrypted communication system.
The only question it might be reasonable to ask is whether these safety number change notifications should be "blocking" or "non-blocking." In other words, when a contact's key changes, should WhatsApp require the user to manually verify the new key before continuing, or should WhatsApp display an advisory notification and continue without blocking the user.
Given the size and scope of WhatsApp's user base, we feel that their choice to display a non-blocking notification is appropriate. It provides transparent and cryptographically guaranteed confidence in the privacy of a user's communication, along with a simple user experience. The choice to make these notifications "blocking" would in some ways make things worse. That would leak information to the server about who has enabled safety number change notifications and who hasn't, effectively telling the server who it could MITM transparently and who it couldn't; something that WhatsApp considered very carefully.
How serious this is depends on your threat model. If you are worried about the US government -- or any other government that can pressure Facebook -- snooping on your messages, then this is a small vulnerability. If not, then it's nothing to worry about.