The Promise of Privacy: Secure Messaging in 2014 Part 1

With mass surveillance and NSA leaks abound and the latest controversy surrounding Whisper, the veracity and safety of secure or anonymous messaging apps has been called into question.

phone

Photo: LDprod / Shutterstock

It begs the question of what is out there for the consumer. If you like communicating with your friends and colleagues through messaging, you might want to reconsider your choice of apps. Some very popular apps have been known to share user data with government entities while other may not be the security strongholds they claim to be.

These worries aren’t a new phenomenon either. In 2012, Skype cooperated with the authorities and opened its chat information to the police, making all data information exchanges accessible to the government.

When you use a secure messaging app, you’re under the belief that you can safely exchange sensitive information with your employees, clients, or colleagues without having to worry about hackers.

How Do Messaging Apps Secure Your Messages?

To protect your information, a secure messaging app will encrypt the message before it leaves your device. Even if these encrypted messages are intercepted while they travel over the Internet, no one except the intended recipient can read them. Some messaging apps are even capable of deleting the messages after they are read.

In the first of a two part series this week, VPN Creative will examine the state of anonymous and encrypted messaging services, from apps to phones. Today we look at a selection of apps on the market – what they are, what can they do, and can you trust them.

Yik Yak

Yik Yak is a location-based application that is a bit like a local bulletin board and is hugely popular with college students.

yik-yak

Using Yik Yak, you can engage in conversations without compromising your anonymity with engagement features like upvoting or downvoting comments left by other users, a feature very similar to the Reddit model. You can check out various communities and also earn Yakarma points, which are basically bonus points you get for using the app.

Yik Yak was launched in November 2013, and by the time it reached June, the app had already raised $10 million.

However, there have been many downs as well. Since its launch, it has made several headlines for various screw ups. At first, Yik Yak was the home of cyberbullying where school students bullied each other. Then it became a place where university students posted threats.

In spite of its huge popularity, the biggest problem Yik Yak faces at the moment is that its content has little value but it has the power to pull users into its fold.

Since late August, the app has been on the list of the top 10 American social networking apps.

FireChat

Open Garden’s FireChat has risen to notoriety of late thanks to the umbrella protests in Hong Kong demanding democratic reforms. Protesters made use of the app for communications and organizing their movements.

firechat

It is a peer-to-peer ‘mesh networking’ service that does not require a network connection, allowing it to work anywhere. It uses Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity on your phone to communicate with other smartphones in the vicinity.

Its range is limited to roughly 70 meters, but it uses smartphones like stepping stones and grows to cover the entire crowd; and its connectivity increases as more users get added in the mesh. People can create chat rooms to hold group discussions, which is why it is huely popular when it comes to organizing protests.

However, FireChat communications are not encrypted and are open to all, which is its one major flaw in Hong Kong but the growth of its user among protesters has spurred the developers to add encryption. “A lot of people in Hong Kong have been asking for [encryption],” said Christophe Daliault of Open Garden in response to the surge of the app in Hong Kong.

Cyphr

Cyphr is one of the newest additions to the encrypted messaging market, developed by Golden Frog and supporting both iOS and Android devices.

cyphr

It’s a free messaging app that encrypts all your messages and keeps snoopers out of your network. Cyphr is relatively easy to use requiring the user to sign up for a free account and create a pair of public and private keys.

As of now, they support only iOS and Android devices, but are working on desktop and web apps. A private message sent through Cyphr can only be seen by the sender and the recipient. Even Golden Frog won’t be able to see these messages. When a user sends a message, Cyphr will add a unique verification stamp so that the recipient can know who sent the message.

Wickr

Wickr, popularly known as Snapchat for adults, is a self-destructing app that employs military grade encryption technology for pictures, texts, PDFs, audio, and video; and also meets NSA-like standards for sending top secret communications.

wickr

This app, currently on just iOS and Android, allows the sender to decide who can read the message and how long they can keep it.

Wickr encrypts your messages using standard cryptography techniques like RSA and AES and your own password. For security purposes, it doesn’t even allow you to retrieve your passwords.

An Ever-Growing Market

These four messaging apps are different avenues for anonymous or secure messaging, and in theory, should keep you safe from prying eyes. Meanwhile there are several other messaging apps as well, such as:

mermur

Mermur: A web app that allows you to send anonymous text messages. You will not receive any reply because the recipient of the message will not know who sent it.

kindly

Kindly: Using this messaging app, you can choose any topic and engage in an anonymous chat with anyone for up to 20 minutes.

rooms

Rooms: This allows you to create a chat room on the basis of your chat preferences and talk to like-minded people.

secretly

Secret: As the name suggests, Secret allows you to share secrets with others anonymously.

Remember that no messaging application is 100 percent safe, but if you’re a business user worried about privacy, you should try secure messaging apps for smartphones. These apps use high end encryption technologies to secure your messages and are safer than regular messaging apps.

Check back with us on Thursday for part two as we delve further into the world of secure messaging.