Encryption Companies Throwing Shade Keeps Everyone In the Dark

Every new app wants to be seen as more secure than the last, even if they’re really not.

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Mar 31 2015, 9:00am

​Image: Flickr/​Matthias Ripp

​In the burgeoning market for services that keep your messages safe from hackers and the NSA, every new app wants to be seen as more secure than the last—even if they're really not.

In the last two weeks alone, industry players both new and established in the world of secure messaging apps have made incredible claims about the security of their services compared to their competitors'. Every one of them has been picked apart by third party experts, leading some in the encryption community to wonder if the companies in question are more interested in increasing their market share than protecting their users.

"They're playing crypto," said Nadim Kobeissi, the coder who developed the open source secure messaging app Cryptocat. "Each [company] is carrying a campaign of fear, uncertainty, and doubt against the other based on claimed concerns with crypto. But really, this is business politics. All they're doing is competing on a business level to attract more users, and they're masking this as a crypto concern."

Case in point: Telegram, a secure messaging service developed by former Russian social network VKontakte CEO Pavel Durov. A recent Wired profile claimed that Telegram uses "hardcore" encryption and quoted Durov as saying Telegram's security is what sets it apart from WhatsApp, its Facebook-backed competition.

But Frederic Jacobs, security researcher for Whisper Systems—the company developing end-to-end encryption for WhatsApp—was quick to debunk these claims.

Jacobs tweeted that Telegram does not use end-to-end encryption by default, a serious oversight that could leave users' messages open to interception unless they're aware of the issue and enable encryption.

"All they're doing is competing on a business level to attract more users"

Other experts, including Matthew Green, a cryptography professor at Johns Hopkins University, agree that Telegram is not as secure as it makes itself out to be. 

Telegram has potentially huge flaws. But here's the thing: WhatsApp has its own encryption issues. While it does protect users from passive surveillance using end-to-end encryption thanks to Whisper Systems, it has holes that leave users open to more direct attacks.

For example, users on WhatsApp can't verify that their conversation partner is really who they say they are, Kobeissi noted in a blog post. "Without [this feature], there is no real guarantee of security against any WhatsApp employee told to intercept the traffic of certain users," he wrote.

Moreover, it's WhatsApp's servers, not the users themselves, that determine whether encryption is used in a given instance or not—there is the possibility that it could be turned off at any time without the user's knowledge.

So, WhatsApp has a few issues, and Telegram likely overstated its encryption abilities; there are others, too. Zendo, yet another new app, claims to be a "cryptographic unicorn" with unbreakable security because it uses a technique that generates a completely random cryptographic key to decode a message.

According to Joseph Bonneau, a Princeton University security researcher, a problem with this approach is that most phones don't have the processing power to generate truly random strings of numbers. Instead, he wrote in a blog post, Zendo forces users' devices to create "pseudorandom" numbers based on mathematical functions that can be cracked. By definition, they're less secure than truly random numbers.

So, what's the problem here? Clearly, apps that claim to be secure must actually be secure or else they could put users who depend on their services—say, a protester, journalist, or political dissident—at serious risk.

"If a new crypto tool is first announced in a press release or popular science magazine, don't use it"

This might seem counterintuitive for an industry that is all about security, but when you're trying to elbow your way to the front of a constantly growing crowd of apps offering similar services—WhatsApp, Telegram, RedPhone, Signal, etc.—it's possible that social concerns could be drowned out by business imperatives.

According to Kobeissi, this kind of jockeying for public opinion could actually hinder the development of better encryption technologies across the board. Instead of collaborating, sharing research, and implementing better technology where it exists, secure messaging companies are pontificating about their own successes—real or not—while disparaging their competitors.

"The way the Telegram and [Whisper Systems] people have been talking to each other is very disingenuous in that it doesn't focus on collaboration in order to improve security," said Kobeissi. "Telegram wants to say that they have excellent encryption without soliciting improvements to their system."

"It's so petty and political, and from my perspective they put all the talk about how to make encryption better and instead throw around accusations," he added.

The point is that developing strong encryption is a collaborative process involving many actors working together: academics, private companies, hackers, and more. When valuable knowledge becomes siloed along corporate lines and discourse around encryption devolves into in-fighting, encryption technology as a whole suffers. Ideas aren't shared, innovation doesn't happen as quickly, and thus better techniques aren't implemented across the board.

On this point, Bonneau provided some valuable advice in his blog post on Zendo: "If a new crypto tool is first announced in a press release or popular science magazine, don't use it." We already know the stakes are high when it comes to protecting our communications from governments and criminals—shouldn't we act like it?

Correction: An earlier version of this article implied that Whisper Systems developer Frederic Jacobs claimed that WhatsApp used "strong encryption" (a paraphrase not quoted, but attributed). This has been corrected. We apologize for this mistake.

Correction: An earlier version of this story implied that WhatsApp overstated the strength of its encryption. WhatsApp has been consistent in its claims to encryption, but it still has potential vulnerabilities, which are listed in this article.