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What is actually… End-to-end encryption?

2 minutes reading time
6-17 years
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Parents and children communicate not only in person, but also via smartphone. Text and voice messages, photos and videos are sent daily. WhatsApp is the most popular way to do this. Since April 2016, the app uses the so-called end-to-end encryption. But what is it actually?

What happens when I write messages with my smartphone?

Let’s imagine the following situation: Mom and Ben both use WhatsApp. Mom writes a message to Ben: “Hi Ben, is school over already?”. When mom sends the message, the first thing she does is send it to WhatsApp’s servers. From there, the message is then forwarded to Ben. He can then read the message on his smartphone. Compared to letter mail, the exchange happens online in just a few seconds.

What is (end-to-end) encryption?

When a message is encrypted, the content can no longer be read. Only with the appropriate key can the message be restored. You can compare this to a letter that has a lock on it. Only the person with the right key can open the letter to read what it says. So when Mom sends an encrypted message to Ben, no one but him can read what it says. This is important because a lot can happen on the way from Mom’s smartphone to the WhatsApp servers and from there on to Ben’s smartphone. The message could be read along the way by hackers and surveillance services, for example. To prevent this and to preserve the secrecy of correspondence, messages should be encrypted. By the way, not only text messages can be encrypted, but also voice, calls, photos and videos.
With end-to-end encryption, Mom’s message is encrypted all the way to Ben’s smartphone. The content can only be read on Mom and Ben’s devices. Only they have the necessary key. The entire encryption process runs automatically. It is best to use applications that use end-to-end encryption. Especially when it comes to messenger apps for the smartphone, there is a wide choice. Among them are many good alternatives to WhatsApp that also encrypt end-to-end and also protect users’ data, e.g. Threema, Telegram or Hoccer. However, group messages are often not encrypted.

When does encryption make sense?

It generally makes sense to send information over the Internet in encrypted form. Especially when it comes to sensitive information such as names, addresses and bank data. When visiting websites, it is recommended that you always access them via “https://”. The “s” after the “http” stands for “secure”. It means that the information is exchanged in encrypted form. Not all websites offer this security. Payment data and other important information should only be entered on websites that can be accessed via “https”. With minimal effort, e-mails can also be provided with end-to-end encryption. For this, it is useful to look for instructions for the mail program you are using.

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