Technology

The Ultimate Bad Take: Bloomberg's Leonid Bershidsky Thinks A WhatsApp Vulnerability Proves End To End Encryption Is Useless

Bloomberg has really been on a roll lately with getting security stories hellishly wrong. Last fall it was its big story claiming that there was a supply chain hack that resulted in hacked SupermMicro chips being used by Amazon and Apple. That story has been almost entirely debunked, though Bloomberg still has not retracted the original. Then, just a few weeks ago, it flubbed another story, claiming that the presence (years ago) of telnet in some Huawei equipment was a nefarious backdoor, rather than a now obsolete but previously fairly common setup for lots of equipment for remote diagnostics and access.

The latest is an opinion piece, rather than reporting, but it’s still really bad. Following yesterday’s big revelation that a big security vulnerability was discovered in WhatsApp, opinion columnist Leonid Bersidsky declared it as evidence that end-to-end encryption is pointless. This is, to put it mildly, a really, really bad take. The whole article is a confused jumble of mostly nonsense, mixed with stuff that was already widely known and irrelevant:

The discovery that hackers could snoop on WhatsApp should alert users of supposedly secure messaging apps to an uncomfortable truth: “End-to-end encryption” sounds nice — but if anyone can get into your phone’s operating system, they will be able to read your messages without having to decrypt them.

Um. Duh? The whole point of end-to-end encryption is that it protects messages in transit and not at rest. That’s the whole “end-to-end” bit. At the ends it’s decrypted. You can also encrypt content on a device — this is what the FBI is so annoyed about regarding Apple’s iPhone encryption — but to argue that end-to-end encryption is pointless because it doesn’t do what it’s not supposed to do in the first place is crazy.

It gets worse:

“End-to-end encryption” is a marketing device used by companies such as Facebook to lull consumers wary about cyber-surveillance into a false sense of security.

It is true that some people confuse “end-to-end encryption” with perfect security, which it is not. But it is simply wrong (laughably so) to say that it’s merely a “marketing device.” In actuality, end-to-end encryption is a hugely important part of what keeps your data protected when you communicate online. It provides real security for the conditions it’s designed to provide security for — and not other conditions, such as the one the hack takes advantage of.

Bershidsky complaining about on-device malware reading your WhatsApp messages as being evidence that end-to-end encryption is pointless is like arguing that you should never wear seatbelts because they won’t protect you if you drive off a cliff. Seatbelts protect you in lots of common scenarios, but might not protect you in extreme scenarios like driving off a cliff. And end-to-end encryption protects you in lots of messaging scenarios, but won’t protect you if someone can install something directly on your device.

The tug of war between tech firms touting end-to-end encryption as a way to avoid government snooping and state agencies protesting its use is a smokescreen. Government and private hackers are working feverishly on new methods to deploy malware with operating system-wide privileges.

It’s not a “smokescreen.” It’s dealing with one type of attack. It’s bizarre to suggest that end-to-end encryption is useless because there are some advanced ways that people can get around it, ignoring all the other ways that it helps protect most people. End-to-end encryption does much more to protect tons of people, and saying that we can ignore it just because it doesn’t stop all attacks is really dangerous.

Bloomberg should be ashamed to be publishing such dangerous nonsense. It is the equivalent of anti-vax nonsense, telling people not to protect themselves.

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