Encrypted messengers: between promise and reality
The researchers proposed a number of technical, design and policy changes that would improve privacy and security.
In a world where privacy and security are increasingly under attack, especially in countries caught in a global wave of authoritarianism and infringement of rights, encrypted messengers are becoming an increasingly popular and necessary tool for sharing information, organizing and collaborating with each other, and also for doing business. .
However, while the main advantage of secure communication is confidentiality communications and the ability of the user to control the dissemination of personal or group information, in fact, everything turns out to be much more complicated, especially in the era of surveillance capitalism (Surveillance capitalism).
A combination of engineering, design and system factors, as well as diverse user behaviors and changing political conditions, have created a situation in which people can compromise their own interests or the interests of the community by using such messengers.
From September 2022 to May 2023, researchers analyzed popular messengers – Signal, whatsapp, Telegram, Google messages, Apple Messages and Meta* Messenger, across a range of dimensions, including technical security, user experience, how apps interact with users and developers, and their policies, terms and conditions.
The experts sought to understand:
- how people form their own understanding of their own digital security and related risks;
- how the technical and design solutions of messengers can leave users defenseless against threats;
- possible solutions that include technical, design and political changes.
Study builds on principles from approaches such as Privacy by Design and Design from the Margins. The researchers conducted field work with users at risk – abortion rights activists in New Orleans (USA) and journalists in Delhi (India).
The main conclusions and recommendations include:
Users too often act blindly. Even those who care most about privacy rarely have enough information to make decisions that are in their own best interest. There is a significant gap between the promise of encryption and the reality of threats to secure communications in practice.
Experts have encountered various forms of “security folklore” that inform users about decisions instead of fact-based information, as well as “security nihilism” – the feeling that some users do not have a way to communicate securely.
Cryptographic protection of an application does not mean that it is secure. The key here is implementation. Failure to realize end-to-end encryption by default, for example, in Telegram and Messenger from Meta, this clearly proves it.
Users may not understand the difference when they are prompted to create a “secret chat”. And few users understand the design differences in the colors of messages in iMessage and Google Messages, which are designed to send different types of messages (plain SMS or encrypted) and, therefore, different levels of security.
An example of color differences between encrypted and unencrypted messages in Messages Apple
Follow the Signal example and encrypt or don’t store the metadata. Signal is the only app that has taken steps to hide user profiles, contacts, group metadata, and even message sender information. Other developers should follow Signal’s lead and hide user metadata by storing it encrypted with the user’s account key and only processing unencrypted versions in secure zones.
Let users decide which features should be enabled or disabled. Companies should allow any feature that affects privacy and security to be turned on and off, and explore and implement finer settings that allow users (especially users at risk) to customize the service to suit their needs, including when it comes to temporary messages. , preview links, store and delete call logs and activity history.
Eliminate technical and design loopholes that violate privacy. From unencrypted message backups and using phone numbers as identifiers, to bugs in handling deleted messages, confusing feature names, and poor user interface design. There are a number of technical and design problems that the creators of instant messengers must urgently solve.
Beware of excess features. Especially when it comes to social media apps or apps that mimic certain aspects of social media, including Meta Messenger, Telegram, and WhatsApp. Too many features and links to other apps and services can create privacy issues.
Encryption must be protected. Governments around the world are trying to weaken or ban encryption by issuing new laws that break the model of apps like Signal and WhatsApp. It is important that politicians, industry representatives and activists who understand the value of encryption speak up for it.
The study was conducted by Convocation Research & Design and Tech Policy Press, with the support of the Omidyar Network, a program dedicated to private and secure messaging.
* The Meta company and its products (Instagram and Facebook) are recognized as extremist, their activities are prohibited on the territory of the Russian Federation.