Is Your Messaging App Really Secure?

Messaging applications are one of the most—if not the most—important apps that we use
every day. Whether it’s to stay in touch with family and friends across the
world, contact coworkers, or run business operations, messaging apps like
WhatsApp, iMessage, Skype and Facebook Messenger play an important part in our
daily communications.

We often share things such as personal pictures, business
secrets and legal documents on messaging apps, information that we don’t want
to make available to the wrong people. But how far can we trust your messaging
apps to protect all our confidential messages and sensitive information?

Following are some guidelines that will help you assess the
level of security that your favorite messaging app will provide.

A Few Words on Encryption

Of course, all messaging platforms profess to encrypt your data. Encryption uses mathematical equations to scramble your data in transition to prevent eavesdroppers from being able to read your messages.

Proper encryption makes sure that only the sender and the
recipient of a message will be aware of its content. However not all types of
encryption are made equal.

The most secure messaging apps are those that offer end-to-end encryption (E2EE). E2EE
apps store decryption keys on users’ devices only. E2EE not only protects your
communications against eavesdroppers, but also makes sure that the company that
hosts the application won’t be able to read your messages. This also means that
your messages will be protected against data breaches and intrusive warrants by
three-letter agencies.

More and more messaging applications are providing
end-to-end encryption. Signal was one of the first platforms to support E2EE.
In recent years, other applications have adopted Signal’s encryption protocol
or have developed their own E2EE technology. Examples include WhatsApp, Wickr
and iMessage.

Facebook Messenger and Telegram also support E2EE messaging,
though it’s not enabled by default, which makes them less secure. Skype also
added a “Private Conversation” option recently which gives you end-to-end
encryption on one conversation of your choice.

Google’s Hangouts does not support end-to-end encryption,
but the company provides Allo and Duo, text messaging and video conferencing
apps that are end-to-end encrypted.

Message Deletion

There’s more to security than just encrypting messages. What
if your device or the device of the person you’re chatting with gets hacked or
falls into the wrong hands? In that case, encryption will be of little use,
because the malicious actor will be able to see messages in their unencrypted
format.

The best way to protect your messages is to get rid of them
when you don’t need them anymore. This makes sure that even if your device
becomes compromised, malicious actors won’t get access to your confidential and
sensitive messages.

All messaging apps provide some form of message deletion,
but again, not all message removal features are equally secure.

For instance, Hangouts and iMessage enable you to clear your chat history. But while messages will be removed from your device, they will remain on the devices of the people you have been chatting with.

Therefore, if their devices become compromised, you’ll still lose hold of your sensitive data. To its credit, Hangouts has an option to disable chat history, which will automatically remove messages from all devices after each session.

In Telegram, Signal, Wickr and Skype, you can delete messages for all parties to a conversation. This can make sure that sensitive communications don’t remain in any of the devices involved in a conversation.

WhatsApp also added a “delete for everyone” option in 2017, but you can use it to delete only those messages you’ve sent within the last 13 hours. Facebook Messenger also added an “unsend” feature very recently, though it only works for 10 minutes after you send a message.

Signal, Telegram and Wickr also provide a self-destructing
message feature, which will immediately remove messages from all devices after
a configured period of time passes. This feature is especially good for
sensitive conversations, and saves you the effort of manually wiping messages.

Metadata

Every message comes with an amount of auxiliary information, also known as metadata, such as sender and receiver IDs, the time a message was sent, received and read, IP addresses, phone numbers, device IDs, etc.

Messaging servers store and process that kind of information to make sure messages are delivered to the right recipients and on time and to enable users to browse and organize their chat logs.

While metadata doesn’t contain message text, in the wrong hands, it can be very harmful and reveal a lot about users’ communication patterns such as their geographical location, the times they use their apps, the people they communicate with, etc.

In case the messaging service falls victim to a data breach, this kind of information can pave the way for cyberattacks such as phishing and other social engineering schemes.

Most messaging services collect a wealth of metadata and
unfortunately, there’s no sure way to know what type of information messaging
services store. But from what we know, Signal has the best track record.
According to the company, its servers only register the phone number with which
you created your account and the last date you logged in to your account.

Transparency

Every developer will tell you their messaging app is secure,
but how can you be sure? How do you know the app is not hiding a
government-implanted backdoor? How do you know the developer has done a good
job at testing the application?

Applications make the source code of
their application publicly available, also known as “open-source,” are more
reliable because independent security experts can examine and confirm whether
they’re secure or not.

Signal, Wickr and Telegram are open-source messaging apps,
which means they have been peer-reviewed by independent experts. Signal in
particular has the support of security experts such as Bruce Schneier and
Edward Snowden.

WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are closed-source, but they
use the open-source Signal Protocol to encrypt their messages. This means that
you can at least rest assured that Facebook, which owns both apps, won’t be
looking into the content of your messages.

For fully closed-source applications such as Apple’s
iMessage, you must fully trust the developer to avoid making disastrous
security mistakes.

To be clear, open-source doesn’t mean absolute security. But
at least you can make sure that the app isn’t hiding anything nasty under the
hood.

How to Encrypt All Your Online and Offline Data

We use dozens of online services and applications every day to send and receive emails and text messages, make video calls, read news and watch videos online, and much more. And it’s extremely hard to keep track and secure the insane amount of data we produce and consume every day.

And in case you’re thinking, “I have nothing to hide,” you’re wrong. Every piece of data that you unleash in the web and fail to secure can be used against you. In the wrong hands, those data points can be gathered and correlated to create a digital profile, which can then be used to commit fraud, forgery and phishing attacks against you.

Your digital profile can also be used to invade your privacy in annoying and creepy ways such as showing you ads that are personalized based on your most intimate preferences and information.

However, it’s never too soon to start protecting your digital information from unwanted eyes. In this regard, your best friend is encryption, the science of scrambling data using mathematics. Encryption makes sure only intended people can read your data. Unauthorized parties who access your data will see nothing but a bunch of undecipherable bytes.

Here’s how you can encrypt all the data you store on your devices and in the cloud.

Encrypt Your On-Device Data

First, the easy part. You should start by encrypting the data you physically hold. This includes the content you store on your laptop, desktop PC, smartphone, tablet and removable drives. If you lose your devices, you risk placing sensitive information in the wrong hands.

The most secure way to encrypt your on-device data is full-disk encryption (FDE). FDE encrypts everything on a device and only makes the data available for use after the user provides a password or PIN code.

Most operating systems support FDE. In Windows, you can use BitLocker to turn on full-disk encryption on your PC. In macOS, the full-disk encryption is called FileVault. You can read our step-by-step guide on using BitLocker and FileVault.

Windows BitLocker also supports encrypting external drives such as memory cards and USB thumb drives. On macOS, you can use the Disk Utility to create an encrypted USB drive.

Alternatively, you can try hardware encrypted devices. Hardware encrypted drives require users to enter a PIN code on the device before plugging it to the computer. Encrypted drives are more expensive than their non-encrypted counterparts, but they are also more secure.

You should also encrypt your mobile devices. On-device encryption will make sure that an unauthorized person won’t be able to gain access to your phone’s data, even if they get physical access to it. Both iOS and Android support full-disk encryption. All Apple devices running iOS 8.0 and later are encrypted by default. We suggest you leave it that way.

The Android landscape is a bit fragmented since OS default settings and interfaces might differ based on manufacturer and OS version. Make sure to check yours is encrypted.

Encrypt Your Data in the Cloud

We rely on cloud storage services such as Google Drive, DropBox and Microsoft OneDrive to store our files and share them with friends and colleagues. But while those services do a good job to protect your data against unauthorized access, they still have access to the contents of the files you store in their cloud services. They also can’t protect you if your account gets hijacked.

If you don’t feel comfortable with Google or Microsoft having access to your sensitive files, you can use Boxcryptor. Boxcryptor integrates with most popular storage services and adds a layer of encryption to protect your files before uploading them to the cloud. This way, you can make sure that only you and the people you share your files with will be aware of their content.

Alternatively, you can use an end-to-end encrypted (E2EE) storage service such as Tresorit.  Before storing your files in the cloud, E2EE storage services encrypt your files with keys that you exclusively hold, and not even the service that stores your files can access their content.

Encrypt Your Internet Traffic

Perhaps equally as important as encrypting your files is the encryption of your internet traffic. Your internet service provider (ISP)—or a malicious actor that might be lurking on the public Wi-Fi network you’re using—will be able to eavesdrop on the sites you browse to and the services and applications you use. They can use that information to sell it to advertisers or, in the case of hackers, use it against you.

To protect your internet traffic against nosy and malicious parties, you can sign up to a virtual private network (VPN). When you use a VPN, all your internet traffic is encrypted and channeled through a VPN server before reaching its destiny.

If a malicious actor (or your ISP) decides to monitor your traffic, all they’ll see is a stream of encrypted data exchanged between you and your VPN server. They won’t be able to figure out which websites and applications you’re using.

One thing to consider is that your VPN provider will still have full visibility on your internet traffic. If you want absolute privacy, you can use The Onion Router (Tor). Tor, which is both the name of a darknet network and a namesake browser, encrypts your internet traffic and bounces it through several independent computers running a specialized software.

None of the computers in the Tor network has full knowledge of the source and the destination of your internet traffic, which gives you full privacy. However, Tor comes with a considerable speed penalty, and many websites block traffic coming from the Tor network.

Encrypt Your Emails

I guess I don’t need to tell you the importance of protecting your emails. Just ask John Podesta, whose leaked emails might have cost his boss her chance at presidency. Encrypting your emails can protect your sensitive communications against people who gain unwanted access to them. This can be hackers who break into your account, or your email provider itself.

To encrypt your emails, you can use Pretty Good Privacy (PGP). PGP is an open protocol that uses public-private key encryption to enable users to exchange encrypted emails. With PGP, every user has a public, known to everyone, which enables other users to send them encrypted emails.

The private key, which is only known to the user and stored on the user’s device, can decrypt messages encrypted with the public key. If an unintended party intercepts a PGP-encrypted email, they won’t be able to read its contents. Even if they break into your email account by stealing your credentials, they won’t be able to read the contents of your encrypted emails.

One of the advantages of PGP is that it can be integrated into any email service. There plenty of plugins that add PGP support to email client applications such as Microsoft Outlook. If you’re using a web client like the Gmail or Yahoo websites, you can use Mailvelope, a browser extension that adds easy-to-use PGP support to most popular email services.

Alternatively, you can sign-up to an end-to-end encrypted email service such as ProtonMail. ProtonMail encrypts your emails without the need to take any additional steps. Unlike services such as Gmail and Outlook.com, ProtonMail won’t be able to read the content of your emails.

Encrypt Your Messages

Messaging apps have become an inseparable part of our lives. There are dozens of messaging services you can use to communicate with family, friends and colleagues. But they provide different levels of security.

Preferably, you should use a messaging service that is end-to-end encrypted. Nowadays, most popular messaging services provide end-to-end encryption. Some examples include WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, Viber and Wickr.

However, those that enable E2EE by default are more secure. WhatsApp, Signal and Wickr enable end-to-end encryption by default.

Also, messaging services that are based on open-source protocols are more reliable because they can be peer-reviewed by independent industry experts. Signal Protocol, the E2EE technology that powers WhatsApp and Signal, is an open-source protocol that has been endorsed by many security experts.

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