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Prosecutors say Google accessed private WhatsApp messages — but the evidence is thin

Prosecutors say Google accessed private WhatsApp messages — but the evidence is thin

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A new lawsuit alleges a backroom deal between Google and Facebook

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

On Wednesday, the Texas attorney general announced a far-reaching antitrust case against Google’s ad business. The complaint makes a lot of eye-opening allegations, including a long-running conspiracy between Google and Facebook to defuse the threat of header bidding, but one of the strangest allegations had to do with WhatsApp. According to the complaint, Google made a deal with Facebook to access millions of private messages, and photos from WhatsApp users, shortly after the app was acquired.

The specific allegation comes 57 pages into the complaint. The passage is heavily redacted, but it unmistakably alleges an exclusive agreement between Google and Facebook, granting Google access to users’ WhatsApp messages.

An excerpt from p57 of the Texas v. Google complaint.
An excerpt from p57 of the Texas v. Google complaint.

This is an extraordinary claim for a couple of reasons. WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted, which means Facebook did not have centralized access to user messages at the time of the acquisition. (This is in contrast to a service like Gmail, where Google retains all of the messages on its servers and can scan them en masse.) That should make it impossible for Facebook to cut this kind of access deal to another company since it doesn’t have access itself. The whole point of end-to-end encryption is that it’s impossible for a company to trade away user privacy in this way.

So... what is Texas talking about here? The clearest explanation — put forward by Stanford’s Alex Stamos, among others — is that the passage is actually referring to backup files, which are initiated by the user and lie outside the service’s end-to-end encryption. But even then, the claims don’t quite hold water. Google does make it easy for Android users to store WhatsApp backups on Google Drive — but there’s nothing exclusive about the deal, and it’s not clear why it would have required a written contract. iOS users can store backups on iCloud too, and in each case, the backup is only created if the user initiates it.

Neither Google nor Facebook would provide an on-the-record statement, citing the sensitivity of the ongoing legal proceeding, but on background, both denied any exclusive deal to share WhatsApp user data. Google also pointed to a previous statement from Sundar Pichai, where the CEO committed to not using Drive data for advertising.

“We don’t sell your information to anyone,” Pichai wrote in June, “and we don’t use information in apps where you primarily store personal content—such as Gmail, Drive, Calendar and Photos—for advertising purposes, period.”

That leaves us in a difficult place. This complaint was the result of months of probes to both Google and Facebook, which almost certainly turned up information that hasn’t been made public. But the redactions and general confusion around the case make it difficult to tell how much is actually there.

The idea of a backroom deal to unlock millions of private messages is too alarming to ignore, but it’s also too alarming to accept at face value — especially when it contradicts so much of what we know about how these systems work. Along with the other claims of Facebook collusion, this will place a massive burden of proof on prosecutors as the case goes forward. But for now at least, it seems as if Texas has dropped a bombshell claim without backing it up.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed Sep 24 Striking out

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Emma RothSep 24
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The bill, called the Digital Financial Assets Law, would establish a regulatory framework for companies that transact with cryptocurrency in the state, similar to New York’s BitLicense system. In a statement, Newsom says it’s “premature to lock a licensing structure” and that implementing such a program is a “costly undertaking:”

A more flexible approach is needed to ensure regulatory oversight can keep up with rapidly evolving technology and use cases, and is tailored with the proper tools to address trends and mitigate consumer harm.


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At its Tudum event today, Netflix showed off a new clip from the Tim Burton series Wednesday, which focused on a very important character: the sentient hand known as Thing. The full series starts streaming on November 23rd.


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At 1PM ET today Netflix is streaming its second annual Tudum event, where you can expect to hear news about and see trailers from its biggest franchises, including The Witcher and Bridgerton. I’ll be covering the event live alongside my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore, and you can also watch along at the link below. There will be lots of expected names during the stream, but I have my fingers crossed for a new season of Hemlock Grove.


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Why not hang out on the couch playing video games and watching TV. It’s a good time for it, with intriguing recent releases like Return to Monkey Island, Session: Skate Sim, and the Star Wars spinoff Andor. Or you could check out some of the new anime on Netflix, including Thermae Romae Novae (pictured below), which is my personal favorite time-traveling story about bathing.


A screenshot from the Netflix anime Thermae Romae Novae.
Thermae Romae Novae.
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Jay PetersSep 23
Twitch’s creators SVP is leaving the company.

Constance Knight, Twitch’s senior vice president of global creators, is leaving for a new opportunity, according to Bloomberg’s Cecilia D’Anastasio. Knight shared her departure with staff on the same day Twitch announced impending cuts to how much its biggest streamers will earn from subscriptions.


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Tom WarrenSep 23
Has the Windows 11 2022 Update made your gaming PC stutter?

Nvidia GPU owners have been complaining of stuttering and poor frame rates with the latest Windows 11 update, but thankfully there’s a fix. Nvidia has identified an issue with its GeForce Experience overlay and the Windows 11 2022 Update (22H2). A fix is available in beta from Nvidia’s website.


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If you’re using crash detection on the iPhone 14, invest in a really good phone mount.

Motorcycle owner Douglas Sonders has a cautionary tale in Jalopnik today about the iPhone 14’s new crash detection feature. He was riding his LiveWire One motorcycle down the West Side Highway at about 60 mph when he hit a bump, causing his iPhone 14 Pro Max to fly off its handlebar mount. Soon after, his girlfriend and parents received text messages that he had been in a horrible accident, causing several hours of panic. The phone even called the police, all because it fell off the handlebars. All thanks to crash detection.

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Ford is running out of its own Blue Oval badges.

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