So Simon and Chris and Kelly and Craig are just too cool for school. And Paul and Jane and Anne and Melissa are in the in-crowd too. But this isn’t a bunch of seniors at Summer Heights High with their own super-secret WhatsApp discussion group. This is the front bench of the federal parliamentary Liberal party.
Except the secrecy wasn’t so super, and details of the pollies’ WhatsApp chats have been laid bare. Julie Bishop would have figured out how she was shafted anyway, but having the tale told, albeit unwittingly, by her own colleagues in their own words must sting.
So how was the highly secure, fully encrypted darling of the world’s cross-platform messengers compromised? Well, there are some high-tech possibilities, but Occam’s razor suggests that the humble print screen button was to blame.
It’s true that messages between WhatsApp buddies are encrypted end to end, so that wiretapping is all but impossible. Sniffing the internet for data packets travelling between front benchers Paul Fletcher and Christopher Pyne, and attempting to decipher them, would be a task for cyber-Hercules.
There’s another possibility, in theory. Last January, researchers at Germany’s Ruhr University alleged a design fault in WhatsApp’s security model. If a spy gains admission to a closed group, they have full access to everything that’s messaged from that point.
‘Spy’ in the group
The flaw was said to be that WhatsApp’s servers can add a member to a group without the group’s approval. From then on, the stranger is treated as one of the family. There’s no absolute rule that only a group’s administrator can admit a new person.
WhatsApp retorted that the system always alerts existing members to the arrival of a newcomer, so even in a worst case, a spy wouldn’t remain undetected. It’s a funny defence, though, to admit that there may be a back door for outsiders but argue that once inside the walls, they’re most likely to be detected. Why not just seal the back door?
That said, we don’t believe that when the ABC’s Barry Cassidy revealed that he’d “got hold of a WhatsApp thread”, anybody had infiltrated the “Friends For Stability” WhatsApp group.
As we reported recently, WhatsApp has a handy feature that exports a chat thread as a simple text file – no encryption there. But even if a leaker didn’t know how to export, there’s a simple solution.
Secret messages ‘break cover’
For decades, cryptographers have pointed out what should be obvious. When encrypted information becomes viewable, readable or listenable by humans, it breaks cover.
An end to end encrypted audio track that can be heard on PC can be recorded, even if just by an old-fashioned tape recorder sitting next to the computer’s speakers. A text message that’s scrambled in transit, but is readable on screen on arrival, can be photographed, or print-screened, or even just transcribed.
When Cassidy said that he’d “got hold of a thread” that shone a light on last week’s murky double dealings, we’d guess that the documentary evidence was something like a few screenshots of the juicy conversation.
How to leak
If you want to retain a snap of anything on your iPhone 8 or earlier, just press and hold the top or side button, immediately click the home button, and release the top or side button.
On an iPhone X, hold the right-side button, click volume up on the left, and release both buttons.
If your Samsung handset has a physical home button, hold power and home simultaneously, and release. If there’s no physical home button, use the power and volume down combo.
After that, forward the screen shots to the political journalist of your choice, via WhatsApp of course, for security.
Alternatively, just invent the text conversation you reckon the MPs might have had. Using a clever and quirky app called TextingStory for iOS or Android, you can mock up a chat between characters of your choice and save it as a video file.
We can imagine an intense love story or a tale of criminal intrigue being penned in this so very 21st Century mode … short stories morphing into short messaging stories. But in these depressing political times, maybe some wit needs to author the “real” chatter behind last week’s farce.
Peter Moon is a technology lawyer with Cooper Mills. email@example.com