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In a latest development, cyber security experts have raised concerns about Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull and senior government ministers sending private and confidential information via the messaging service.
WhatsApp and similar messaging apps are great for normal day-to-day communication between friends, but using it to discuss matters of national security is certainly a choice that will raise eyebrows.
As with any technology, particularly those that allow for speedy communication, the benefits have to be weighed carefully against the associated security risks.
One of the main points of criticism over the decision to use WhatsApp is that it doesn’t feature on the Evaluated Product List, the list of accepted tools for ministerial communications compiled by the Australian Signals Directorate.
This list features products that are tested and certified for specific purposes against internationally recognized standards. Vendors can apply for this certification for their products and once evaluated it can be used for the specific purpose.
Many different types of products are on this list, including biometrics, data protection, smart cards, mobile products, network devices, operating systems, and so on. Within the mobile products space, the list features Apple’s iOS and Blackberry’s operating system, both of which are platforms from which text messages can be sent — but messaging apps such as WhatsApp are not featured.
Besides text-based messages, WhatsApp also allows files to be shared and transferred between users. This has implications for government, especially if used by ministers or staff with access to classified information. If such information were disseminated via WhatsApp, this would constitute a serious security breach.
Besides malware posing as genuine WhatsApp links, it is also reportedly possible to crash the app by sending large (over 7 megabytes) messages, or messages containing special characters — a particular fear given that these messages can be typed and sent very quickly by someone who gains access to a device for a short period.
Privacy concerns are also raised by the existence of products such as WhatSpy, a web application that allows others to monitor a user’s status messages or even alter their security and privacy settings. Another app called mSpy monitors and reports on a mobile user’s activities, such as text messages, WhatsApp messages and phone calls. This app can be installed very quickly and once installed it can report to a designated number or email.