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WhatsApp to offer end-to-end encrypted backups in iCloud, Google Drive with user-managed keys • The Register

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Facebook’s WhatsApp on Friday said users will soon be able to store end-to-end (E2E) encrypted backups of their chat history on Google Drive in Android or Apple iCloud in iOS, with an option to self-manage the encryption key.

The move makes encryption-enforced message privacy – typically rather complicated – more viable for consumer-oriented messaging services, if you take for granted the technical integrity of WhatsApp’s encryption and the company’s claims about its privacy practices.

“We’re adding another layer of privacy and security to WhatsApp: an end-to-end encryption option for the backups people choose to store in Google Drive or iCloud,” said Facebook supremo Mark Zuckerberg in a missive on his platform.

“WhatsApp is the first global messaging service at this scale to offer end-to-end encrypted messaging and backups, and getting there was a really hard technical challenge that required an entirely new framework for key storage and cloud storage across operating systems.”

WhatsApp, which boasts two billion users who send over 100 billion messages a day, has beaten Apple to market, if speculation about its intention to offer encrypted iCloud backups proves true.

Apple recently announced plans to scan iCloud-bound photos on customers’ devices, an initiative so contrary to the company’s privacy marketing that security experts tried to explain away the corporate self-harm by suggesting that the intrusive tech might represent a way to placate law enforcement objections to offering iCloud encryption. Apple however walked back its CSAM-scanning plan after advocacy groups and the tech community criticized the privacy compromise.

Word of WhatsApp’s extension of encryption to cloud backups follows a recent ProPublica report that assailed the integrity of WhatsApp’s encryption and its sharing of message metadata, only to subsequently clarify that the app’s mechanism for reporting abuse doesn’t break the app’s end-to-end encryption.

WhatsApp has applied E2E encryption to all messages, calls, video chats, and media since 2016. Around that time, it also provided encryption for iCloud backups. But the key generation method used was reportedly susceptible to a spoofing technique by which an attacker could obtain the key by using a SIM-card with the name number as the WhatsApp user’s device.

The FBI investigation of former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort (convicted in 2018, sentenced in 2019, then pardoned in 2020) offers a lesson on the need for encrypted backups and also on their limits.

One court document [PDF] filed in connection with that case indicates that the FBI obtained some of Manafort’s WhatApp messages from Apple’s iCloud, where they had presumably been backed up without encryption. But the document also indicates that investigators obtained other messages from those who had received them, making E2E encryption irrelevant.

The devil’s in the details

WhatsApp’s current approach, described in a technical paper [PDF], looks more secure, though similarly vulnerable to the exposure by those on the other end of the communication channel.

“The backups themselves are generated on the client as data files which are encrypted using symmetric encryption with the locally generated key,” WhatsApp’s paper explains.

“After a backup is encrypted, it is stored in the third party storage (for example iCloud or Google Drive). Because the backups are encrypted with a key not known to Google or Apple, the cloud provider is incapable of reading them.”

WhatsApp will offer two key handling options. One involves a user-supplied password – unknown to WhatsApp or third-party backup services – that retrieves the user’s actual encryption key from a Backup Key Vault based on a hardware security module (HSM) in a WhatsApp data center.

The other skips the password and requires the user to supply a 64-digit encryption key, without the involvement of the HSM Backup Key Vault, to access any encrypted backups. Generally, that’s going to mean writing the key on a piece of paper and storing it, or trusting it to a password management app, unless you’re particularly adept at memorizing dozens of digits.

Will Cathcart, head of WhatsApp at Facebook, acknowledged that not everyone supports broader use of encryption, but argued for it anyway.

“Some governments continue to suggest using their powers to require companies to offer weaker security,” he said, via Twitter. “We think that’s backwards: we should demand more security from companies for people’s sensitive information, not less.”

We might also consider storing less data. The best security for message backups is not to have them if you don’t really need them. ®



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Facebook oversight board to review system that exempts elite users | Facebook

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Facebook’s semi-independent oversight board says it will review the company’s “XCheck” system, an internal program that has exempted high-profile users from some or all of its rules.

The decision follows an investigation by the Wall Street Journal that revealed that reviews of posts by well-known users such as celebrities, politicians and journalists are steered into the separate system.

Under the program, some users are “whitelisted”, or not subject to enforcement action, while others are allowed to post material that violates Facebook rules pending content reviews that often do not take place. The Xcheck system, for example, allowed Brazilian footballer Neymar to post nude pictures of a woman who had accused him of rape, according to the report.

Users were identified for additional scrutiny based on criteria such as being “newsworthy”, “influential or popular” or “PR risky”, the Wall Street Journal found. By 2020 there were 5.8 million users on the XCheck list, according to the newspaper.

The oversight board said Tuesday that it expects to have a briefing with Facebook on the system and “will be reporting what we hear from this” as part of a report it will publish in October.

The board may also make other recommendations, although Facebook is not bound to follow these.

The Journal’s report, the board said, has drawn “renewed attention to the seemingly inconsistent way that the company makes decisions, and why greater transparency and independent oversight of Facebook matters so much for users”.

Facebook told the Journal in response to its investigation that the system “was designed for an important reason: to create an additional step so we can accurately enforce policies on content that could require more understanding”. The company added that criticism of it was “fair” and that it was working to fix it.

A representative for Facebook declined to comment to the Associated Press on the oversight board’s decision.

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Philippines imposes 12 per cent digital services tax • The Register

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The Philippines has become the latest nation to impose a digital services tax.

Such taxes require the likes of Netflix and Spotify to pay local sales taxes even though their services are delivered – legally, notionally, and physically – from beyond local jurisdiction.

The Philippines has chosen a rate of 12 per cent, mirroring local value added taxes.

“We have now clarified that digital services and the goods and services traded through digital service providers should generally be subject to VAT. This is just a matter of common tax sense,” said Joey Salceda, a member of the Philippines’ House of Representatives and a backer of the change to the nation’s tax code.

Salceda tied the change to post-pandemic economic recovery.

“If brick and mortar establishments, which are the hardest-hit by the pandemic, have to pay VAT, the giants of e-commerce shouldn’t be exempt,” he said.

However, local companies that are already exempt from VAT by virtue of low turnover won’t be caught by the extension of the tax into the virtual realm.

Salceda’s amendments are designed to catch content streamers, but also online software sales – including mobile apps – plus SaaS and hosted software. The Philippines’ News Agency’s report on the amendment’s passage into law even mentions firewalls as subject to VAT.

The Philippines is not alone in introducing a digital services tax to raise more revenue after the COVID-19 pandemic hurt government revenue – Indonesia used the same logic in 2020 .

But the taxes are controversial because they are seen as a unilateral response to the wider issue of multinational companies picking the jurisdictions in which they’ll pay tax – a practice that erodes national tax bases. The G7 group of nations, and the OECD, think that collaborations that shift tax liabilities to nations where goods and services are acquired and consumed are the most appropriate response, and that harmonising global tax laws to make big tech pay up wherever they do business is a better plan than digital services taxes.

The USA has backed that view of digital services taxes, by announcing it will impose tariffson nations that introduce them – but is yet to enact that plan.

Meanwhile, the process of creating a global approach to multinational tax shenanigans is taking years to agree and implement.

But The Philippines wants more cash in its coffers – and to demonstrate that local businesses aren’t being disadvantaged – ASAP. ®

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How to ask your boss for more flexible working

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While returning to the office is now possible for many, some workers might still want the option of flexible working some of the time. Here’s how to broach the subject.

This week marked the beginning of a phased and staggered return to workplaces for many employees in Ireland.

It essentially marked the first official green light for employers to ready their offices and start putting plans in place for their staff’s return.

Click here to check out the top sci-tech employers hiring right now.

However, HR body CIPD Ireland urged employers to be mindful of anxious workers as they face “another round of upheaval” with the return to offices.

So, while employers are finalising plans about how, where and when their teams will work, some employees may be wondering how to go about expressing their preference, worried that it’s not in line with what the company wants.

While there have been plenty of discussions and remote work advocates calling for leaders to be more flexible and recognise that the future of work will be hybrid, the reality for individual employees can feel very different.

While big-picture debates around the right to request remote work are happening, how do you ask for what you want in the here and now, when your boss is determined to have a full return to the office?

Explain your reasons

If remote or flexible working isn’t something your boss is already willing to give you, then you must treat it like a pay rise request.

Explain clearly and concisely the reasons why you want more flexibility, how it will benefit you and make you a more engaged, happier worker.

While family commitments might be an important factor, so too is work-life balance and getting rid of long commutes. And, while there is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, Covid-19 is still a very real concern, so don’t be afraid to express your reservations about this too.

Make a business case

When you ask for a pay increase, you provide proof of the value you have added to the company. Take the same approach here and explain to your boss how flexible working will actually be beneficial to them.

Some managers who resist remote working might still have an office-based mentality where presenteeism is key. But there are numerous studies that show that knowledge workers are more productive when working remotely.

And, when done as a purposeful business strategy, remote working can help teams prioritise work more clearly as well as allowing for more downtime and work-life balance.

Be realistic

Depending on your manager, your team and the work you do, it may not be feasible to ask to work from home five days a week.

It’s important that you are realistic about asking for what you want and also realistic about what you can deliver in return. Remote workers can be more productive but they can also be in danger of burning out so be thoughtful about what strategy will work best for both you and your manager.

Listen to their perspective

While conversations around remote working appear to be mostly positive, it can be a different situation behind the office doors.

Many managers and leaders are still hesitant about moving to a fully flexible working strategy and this can lead to workers feeling like they are not being listened to.

However, one of the best ways to combat that hesitancy from managers is to listen to their concerns and address them in a problem-solving manner.

Being able to alleviate some of your manager’s worries might make them more amenable to allowing for more flexibility.

Make expectations clear

If you do convince your boss to allow for a more flexible working plan than what they had originally considered, it’s important that both sides understand what is expected.

Without clearly defining the outcomes of the new set-up, misunderstandings can lead to disappointments and feelings of mistrust in the idea of flexible working.

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