The French Government has become the latest in a string of national governments to propose the creation of its own version of WhatsApp. But unlike the rest, rather than trying to gain access to user’s content, France is concerned that it is now secure enough.
French encryption concerns
Many government ministers around the world have shown open hostility to the likes of Facebook, Signal, and WhatsApp because their security and intelligence forces are unable to access their content.
But despite the regular public attacks on these encrypted messenger services, many Government ministers around the world are also keen users.
They like being able to communicate with themselves in a secure and encrypted environment as much as anyone else does, it is just that many of them don’t want their citizens to enjoy the same benefits as them.
But in France, it is a different story. Like everywhere else, French Government ministers are believed to be keen users of encrypted messaging services. For example, French President Emmanuel Macron, who regularly attacked encryption during his campaign, is known to be a keen user of Telegram.
But French officials are worried that the levels of protection offered by services like Telegram and WhatsApp don’t go far enough.
None of the main encrypted messaging services are based in France and it seems that the concerns stem from the fact that senior Government figures are relying on overseas encryption to protect their data.
A spokesperson for the French Government explained the situation to Reuters saying, “We need to find a way to have an encrypted messaging service that is not encrypted by the United States or Russia… You start thinking about the potential breaches that could happen, as we saw with Facebook, so we should take the lead.”
A publicly developed encrypted messaging service
So, how is the French Government planning to address these concerns? It is believed that many officials work smartphones have already been installed with software (created by French security firm Thales) to prevent the use of either WhatsApp of Telegram on them.
And now it seems they are planning to create their own encrypted messaging app, which will ensure that all communications between French Government officials are secured inside France, rather than by an overseas company.
The new French encrypted messenger service has been created by a state-employed developer and is believed to be based on open-source software which is freely available online. The Government spokesperson refused to name the specific code that has been used.
It is possible that the new service could be a version of the Citadel instant messaging app that has already been developed by Thales which claims to offer a complete end-to-end encryption service including for voice calls and file sharing.
The new app is currently still in the testing phase with around 20 French officials and senior civil servants currently trialling the new service. But there is clearly confidence in the new service and as a result, the French Government has set an ambitious timetable for its rollout.
According to the spokesperson, it is hoped that the new app will become mandatory across Government as soon as this summer.
Laudable intentions based on a false premise
It is to their credit that the French Government is taking encrypted messaging so seriously, even if it does grate a little that, while they want to enjoy the benefits of encryption themselves, they don’t seem to think the French people should be able to use it.
But they should also be careful what they wish for. Because state-run encrypted service do not often manage to meet the security heights of their private-sector rivals.
Services like WhatsApp and Telegram have a commercial interest in ensuring that their services are as secure as possible. They invest huge resources in achieving this and the results are impressive.
The fact that Telegram has just been blocked in founder Pavel Durov’s home country, Russia, for refusing to compromise their encryption speaks volumes for how seriously they take it.
And while Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, is currently embroiled in its own privacy scandals right now, there is no suggestion that encrypted content from WhatsApp is involved in any way.
Unlike services like WeChat in China, these companies are fiercely independent and in no way acting as agents of their home state’s governments. Therefore, while the French Government’s concerns are understandable, they are also rather misplaced.
The risk is that they force their Government officials to move away from a secure commercial service, based overseas, and onto a less secure public service based at home.
Hackers will not take long to find out which open source coding has been used in this project. And if there are vulnerabilities present, they will be sure to exploit them. It may not be so long before President Macron is back using Telegram once again.