In Action

Contents:
I. Open Whisper Systems
II. Wickr
III. Telegram


One of the most alienating aspects of Internet security can be the technological jargon that underpins it. It can be hard for techno-neophytes, with little to no experience with encryption, to navigate the world of cryptography. Accessibility is a crucial issue.

Smartphones and tablets pervade today’s society. 533 million Android smartphones were shipped around the world in 2014 alone, to complement sales of nearly 170 million iPhones in the same year.

Smartphones infograph

The ubiquity of smartphones. Source: A Cryptic World

Smartphones can be great tools for the collection of data. You may not even know that, with location services turned on, your every move is being tracked and stored in an infinite pool of metadata. But since so many people own smartphones, anyone can now have access to simple yet sophisticated encryption software.

In this section, we review three of the most popular smartphone applications for both iOS and Android, helping you make an informed decision as to what best suits your needs.

 

Open Whisper Systems

Cost: Free
Operating system: iOS (Signal) and Android (TextSecure)
Signal

Screenshot of the Signal interface. Source: the Apple App Store.

Open Whisper Systems is a not-for-profit collective that develops encryption software for computers and phones. They’ve even received a ringing endorsement from Edward Snowden, who lauded “Use anything by Open Whisper Systems.”

Their most effective and accessible applications on the market are Signal, for iPhones, and TextSecure, for Androids. Both apps serve an identical function, have a similarly clean user interface, and are mutually compatible with each other: you can use Signal to communicate with someone who uses TextSecure, and vice versa. This capacity to cross the boundaries between divergent operating systems ensures Signal and TextSecure are extremely useful for encryption amateurs.

Because Open Whisper Systems is not-for-profit and its software is open source, meaning it can be altered and developed by anyone and redistributed, its apps are price-free and ad-free.

Signal works for both text messaging and voice call, whereas TextSecure is only for texting purposes. There is another app called RedPhone for Androids that automatically encrypts voice-calls, but the separateness of these two apps means Android users are at a disadvantage when it comes to using Open Whisper Systems software.

Make sure anybody you want to text already has Signal or TextSecure, otherwise the end-to-end encryption, which ensures only you and the person with whom you’re communicating can read the messages, won’t work. You do need to enter your phone number upon first opening the app, which may seem problematic for the more cyber-concerned (or paranoid), but this enables the app to find people in your contact list who already use the app. You therefore don’t need to alter many of your pre-existing communication habits.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) gave both Signal and TextSecure perfect ratings on their ‘Secure Messaging Scorecard,’ which means you can be confident that any messages are encrypted in transit and the code has been independently audited to prevent bugs and hacks.

The bottom line: Cross-operating system communication; best peer-reviewed.
 

Wickr

Cost: Free
Operating system: iOS and Android
Screenshot of the Wickr interface, via the Apple App Store

Screenshot of the Wickr interface. Source: the Apple App Store.

Wickr is another end-to-end encryption app that is price-free and ad-free, offering ‘ephemeral messaging’ and diverse attachment features that differentiate it from the Open Whisper Systems software. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull even admitted to using Wickr, stressing the importance for journalists to use ephemeral messaging services to protect their sources and diminish all traces of their electronic trail.

So-called ‘ephemeral messages’ are ones that disappear after a set period of time. In a similar manner to the ephemeral images on the more popular, but not encrypted, app Snapchat, Wickr allows you to set an expiration time on any of your messages.

Wickr does not store any metadata. However, while screenshots are disabled on the Android version, they are still possible on the iOS version, which perhaps limits the security of the app and can potentially lead to self-censorship; Wickr does notify users if a screenshot has been taken, and lets you know the content of that screenshot. Additionally, Wickr allows you to attach audio, video and PDF files, and communicate with groups of up to ten contacts, which indicates the various capabilities of this software.

Wickr, however, is not viewed as favourably by the EFF as Signal and TextSecure; the code is not open to independent review and the cryptography is not transparently explained, making its security less objectively trustworthy. Therefore, this is an app for people willing to compromise transparency for variety.

The bottom line: Ephemeral messages; variety of attachment capabilities. 
 

Telegram

Cost: Free
Operating system: iOS and Android
Screenshot from the Telegram interface, via the Apple App Store

Screenshot from the Telegram interface. Source: the Apple App Store.

Continuing the altruistic theme of all these apps, Telegram is price-free and ad-free. Such apparent devotion to online security exemplified by these apps furthers the possibility of finding an app that best suits your needs and concerns.

Unlike Wickr, Telegram gives you the option of using ephemeral and self-destructing messaging, or unlimited messaging that is securely stored on the Telegram cloud. This cloud accessibility means you have the ability to retrieve your conversations and data across multiple mediums; the app is available for both smartphones and tablets.

You have the option of communicating through cloud chats or secret chats. Cloud chats use client-to-server encryption, meaning third-parties cannot access or determine the content of the communication, but it is nonetheless stored on the Telegram server. Secret chats use end-to-end encryption, which prevents man-in-the-middle attacks.

To ensure your privacy and security in secret chats, Telegram sends you an image that serves as your encryption key. If that image is identical to the one your contact has, then you can be assured that the end-to-end communication is secure; a great method of putting users at ease.

The EFF rates the secret chats on Telegram very highly, yet warns that cloud messaging is encrypted in such a way that the provider (in this case Telegram) can still read and access any communication. Therefore, you must be careful in selecting what function to utilise.

The bottom line: Choice between ephemeral messaging and cloud storage; 
ability to cross-confirm encryption keys

Thumbnail Photo Source: A Cryptic World

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