The discovery of a zero-day vulnerability in WhatsApp, one of the world’s most widely used messaging apps, is nothing short of frightening. This vulnerability allowed an adversary, who is yet to be identified (but I’d bet my left kidney that it’s some flavor of nefarious state actor), to install sophisticated spyware in a targeted way.
I don’t know how else I can say this: this is really bloody bad.
But the thing is, it could have been much worse. WhatsApp was able to quickly issue a fix to all users. Furthermore, the Facebook-owned company has a long-standing policy of only allowing users of supported platforms to use the app.
I know it’s a bit weird to heap praise on a company that’s experiencing a major security crisis, but here we are.
WhatsApp killed support for Nokia S40 phones last year, and stopped users on BlackBerry OS, BlackBerry 10, and Windows Phone 8.0 from accessing the service in 2017. Furthermore, users of older Android devices and iOS will cease to be able to use the platform from February 1, 2020.
Why does this matter? Well, firstly, it pushes consumers into using devices that receive regular updates and patches. WhatsApp is so important, it’s in a position to influence consumer trends. In this case, it’s using its power and influence for good.
But crucially, it avoids WhatsApp inadvertently creating a two-tier system. A system where some users are secure, and others, unfortunately, aren’t. We’ve seen this with other vendors, most notably Microsoft, which discontinued Windows XP while it still was in widespread use in government, medical, and industrial applications.
I <ahem> know of one organisation that spent nearly a third of the entire budget for their website on making it work in IE6 because that’s what their own staff are still forced to use.
— Sharon O'Dea (@sharonodea) May 14, 2019
Obviously, this removes consumer choice in a big way. It means that people with older phones are forced to upgrade, even if they don’t want to. But still, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
As this security incident proves, we live in a dangerous world. I know this will be a controversial point, but sometimes security must take precedence over freedom. Benjamin Franklin be damned.