Coming Soon: Compatibility of WhatsApp Chats with Other Encrypted Messaging Apps

Matt Burgess

A frequent annoyance of contemporary life is having to shuffle through different messaging apps to reach the right person. Messenger, iMessage, WhatsApp, Signal—they all exist in their own silos of group chats and contacts. Soon, though, WhatsApp will do the previously unthinkable for its 2 billion users: allow people to message you from another app. At least, that’s the plan.

For about the past two years, WhatsApp has been building a way for other messaging apps to plug themselves into its service and let people chat across apps—all without breaking the end-to-end encryption it uses to protect the privacy and security of people’s messages. The move is the first time the chat app has opened itself up this way, and it potentially offers greater competition.

It isn’t a shift entirely of WhatsApp’s own making. In September, European, lawmakers designated WhatsApp parent Meta as one of six influential “gatekeeper” companies under its sweeping Digital Markets Act, giving it six months to open its walled garden to others. With just a few weeks to go before that time is up, WhatsApp is detailing how its interoperability with other apps may work.

“There’s real tension between offering an easy way to offer this interoperability to third parties whilst at the same time preserving the WhatsApp privacy, security, and integrity bar,” says Dick Brouwer, an engineering director at WhatsApp who has worked on Meta rolling out encryption to its Messenger app. “I think we’re pretty happy with where we’ve landed.”

Interoperability in both WhatsApp and Messenger—as dictated by Europe’s rules—will initially focus on text messaging, sending images, voice messages, videos, and files between two people. Calls and group chats will come years down the line. Europe’s rules apply only to messaging services, not traditional SMS messaging. “One of the core requirements here, and this is really important, is for users for this to be opt-in,” says Brouwer. “I can choose whether or not I want to participate in being open to exchanging messages with third parties. This is important, because it could be a big source of spam and scams.”

WhatsApp users who opt in will see messages from other apps in a separate section at the top of their inbox. This “third-party chats” inbox has previously been spotted in development versions of the app. “The early thinking here is to put a separate inbox, given that these networks are very different,” Brouwer says. “We cannot offer the same level of privacy and security,” he says. If WhatsApp were to add SMS, it would use a separate inbox as well, although there are no plans to add it, he says.

Overall, the idea behind interoperability is simple. You shouldn’t need to know what messaging app your friends or family use to get in touch with them, and you should be able to communicate from one app to another without having to download both. In an ideal interoperable world, you could, for example, use Apple’s iMessage to chat with someone on Telegram. However, for apps with millions or billions of users, making this a reality isn’t straightforward—encrypted messaging apps use their own configurations and different protocols and have different standards when it comes to privacy.

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Makena Kelly

Jason Parham

Simon Hill

Despite WhatsApp working on its interoperability plan for more than a year, it will still take some time for third-party chats to hit people’s apps. Messaging companies that want to interoperate with WhatsApp or Messenger will need to sign an agreement with the company and follow its terms. The full details of the plan will be published in March, Brouwer says; under EU laws, the company will have several months to implement it.

Brouwer says Meta would prefer if other apps use the Signal encryption protocol, which its systems are based upon. Other than its namesake app and the Meta-owned messengers, the Signal Protocol is publicly disclosed as being used in Google Messages and Skype. To send messages, third-party apps will need to encrypt content using the Signal Protocol and then package it into message stanzas in the eXtensible Markup Language (XML). When receiving messages, apps will need to connect to WhatsApp’s servers.

“We think that the best way to deliver this approach is through a solution that is built on WhatsApp’s existing client-server architecture,” Brouwer says, adding it has been working with other companies on the plans. “This effectively means that the approach that we’re trying to take is for WhatsApp to document our client- server protocol and letting third-party clients connect directly to our infrastructure and exchange messages with WhatsApp clients.”

There is some flexibility to WhatsApp interoperability. Meta’s app will also allow other apps to use different encryption protocols if they can “demonstrate” they reach the security standards that WhatsApp outlines in its guidance. There will also be the option, Brouwer says, for third-party developers to add a proxy between their apps and WhatsApp’s server. This, he says, could give developers more “flexibility” and remove the need for them to use WhatsApp’s client-server protocols, but it also “increases the potential attack vectors.”

So far, it is unclear which companies, if any, are planning to connect their services to WhatsApp. WIRED asked 10 owners of messaging or chat services—including Google, Telegram, Viber, and Signal—whether they intend to look at interoperability or had worked with WhatsApp on its plans. The majority of companies didn’t respond to the request for comment. Those that did, Snap and Discord, said they had nothing to add. (The European Commission is investigating whether Apple’s iMessage meets the thresholds to offer interoperability with other apps itself. The company did not respond to a request for comment. It has also faced recent challenges in the US about the closed nature of iMessage.)

Matthew Hodgson, the cofounder of Matrix, which is building an open source standard for encryption and operates the messaging app Element, confirms that his company has worked with WhatsApp on interoperability in an “experimental” way but that he cannot say any more due to signing a nondisclosure agreement. In a talk last weekend, Hodgson demonstrated “hypothetical” architectures for ways that Matrix could connect to the systems of two gatekeepers that don’t use the same encryption protocols.

Angela Watercutter

Makena Kelly

Jason Parham

Simon Hill

Meanwhile, Julia Weis, a spokesperson for the Swiss messaging app Threema, says that while WhatsApp did approach it to discuss its interoperability plans, the proposed system didn’t meet Threema’s security and privacy standards. “WhatsApp specifies all the protocols, and we’d have no way of knowing what actually happens with the user data that gets transferred to WhatsApp—after all, WhatsApp is closed source,” Weis says. (WhatsApp’s privacy policy states how it uses people’s data.)

When the EU first announced that messaging apps may have to work together in early 2022, many leading cryptographers opposed the idea, saying it adds complexity and potentially introduces more security and privacy risks. Carmela Troncoso, an associate professor at the Swiss university École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, who focuses on security and privacy engineering, says interoperability moves could potentially lead to different power relationships between companies, depending on how they are implemented.

“This move for interoperability will, on the one hand, open the market, but also maybe close the market in the sense that now the bigger players are going to have more decisional power,” Troncoso says. “Now, if the big player makes a move and you want to continue being interoperable with this big player, because your users are hooked up to this, you’re going to have to follow.”

While the interoperability of encrypted messaging apps may be possible, there are some fundamental challenges about how the systems will work in the real world. How much of a problem spam and scamming will be across apps is largely unknown until people start using interoperable setups. There are also questions about how people will find each other across different apps. For instance, WhatsApp uses your phone number to interact and message other people, while Threema randomly generates eight-digit IDs for people’s accounts. Linking up with WhatsApp “could de-anonymize Threema users,” Weis, the Threema spokesperson says.

Meta’s Brouwer says the company is still working on the interoperability features and the level of support it will make available for companies wanting to integrate with it. “Nobody quite knows how this works,” Brouwer says. “We have no idea what the demand is.” However, he says, the decision was made to use WhatsApp’s existing architecture to run interoperability, as it means that it can more easily scale up the system for group chats in the future. It also reduces the potential for people’s data to be exposed to multiple servers, Brouwer says.

Ultimately, interoperability will evolve over time, and from Meta’s perspective, Brouwer says, it will be more challenging to add new features to it quickly. “We don’t believe interop chats and WhatsApp chats can evolve at the same pace,” he says, claiming it is “harder to evolve an open network” compared to a closed one. “The second you do something different—than what we know works really well—you open up a wormhole of security, privacy issues, and complexity that is always going to be much bigger than you think it is.”

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