Choosing the Proper Tool for the Task

  • Posted on: 21 March 2017
  • By: thecollective

Assessing Your Encryption Options

So, you’ve decided to encrypt your communications. Great! But which tools are the best? There are several options available, and your comrade’s favorite may not be the best for you. Each option has pros and cons, some of which may be deal breakers—or selling points!—for you or your intended recipient. How, then, do you decide which tools and services will make sure your secrets stay between you and the person you’re sharing them with, at least while they’re in transit?

Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need the same tool for every situation; you can choose the right one for each circumstance. There are many variables that could affect what constitutes the “correct” tool for each situation, and this guide can’t possibly cover all of them. But knowing a little more about what options are available, and how they work, will help you make better-informed decisions.

Crypto options 1

Signal

Pros:
Signal is free, open source, easy to use, and features a desktop app, password protection for Android, secure group messages. It’s also maintained by a politically-conscious nonprofit organization, and offers: original implementation of an encryption protocol used by several other tools,1 ephemeral (disappearing) messages, control over notification content, sent/read receipts—plus it can encrypt calls and offers a call-and-response two-word authentication phrase so you can verify your call isn’t being tampered with.

Cons:
Signal offers no password protection for iPhone, and being maintained by a small team means fixes are sometimes on a slow timeline. Your Signal user ID is your phone number, you may have to talk your friends into using the app, and it sometimes suffers from spotty message delivery.

Signal certainly has its problems, but using it won’t make you LESS secure. It’s worth noting that sometimes Signal messages never reach their endpoint. This glitch has become increasingly rare, but Signal may still not be the best tool for interpersonal relationship communications when emotions are heightened!2 One of Signal’s primary problems is failure to recognize when a message’s recipient is no longer using Signal. This can result in misunderstandings ranging from hilarious to relationship-ending. Additionally, Signal for Desktop is a Chrome plugin; for some, this is a selling point, for others, a deal breaker. Signal for Mac doesn’t offer encryption at rest,3 which means unless you’ve turned it on as a default for your computer, your stored saved data isn’t encrypted. It’s also important to know that while Signal does offer self-destructing messages, the timer is shared, meaning that your contact can shut off the timer entirely and the messages YOU send will cease to disappear.

Wickr

Pros: Wickr offers free, ephemeral messaging that is password protected. Your user ID is not dependent on your phone number or other personally identifying info. Wickr is mostly reliable and easy to use—it just works.

Cons: Wickr is not open source, and the company’s profit model (motive) is unclear. There’s also no way to turn off disappearing messages.

Wickr is sometimes called “Snapchat for adults.” It’s an ephemeral messaging app which claims to encrypt your photos and messages from endpoint to endpoint, and stores everything behind a password. It probably actually does exactly what it says it does, and is regularly audited, but Wickr’s primary selling point is that your user login is independent from your cell phone number. You can log in from any device, including a disposable phone, and still have access to your Wickr contacts, making communication fairly easy. The primary concern with using Wickr is that it’s a free app, and we don’t really know what those who maintain it gain from doing so, and it should absolutely be used with that in mind. Additionally, it is worth keeping in mind that Wickr is suboptimal for communications you actually need to keep, as there is no option to turn off ephemeral messaging, and the timer only goes up to six days.

Threema

Pros: Threema is PIN-protected, offers decent usability, allows file transfers, and your user ID is not tied to your phone number.

Cons: Threema isn’t free, isn’t open source, doesn’t allow ephemeral messaging, and ONLY allows a 4-digit PIN.

Threema’s primary selling point is that it’s used by some knowledgeable people. Like Wickr, Threema is not open source but is regularly audited, and likely does exactly what it promises to do. Also like Wickr, the fact that your user ID is not tied to your phone number is a massive privacy benefit. If lack of ephemerality isn’t a problem for you (or if Wickr’s ephemerality IS a problem for you), Threema pretty much just works. It’s not free, but at $2.99 for download, it’s not exactly prohibitively expensive for most users. With a little effort, Threema also makes it possible for Android users to pay for their app “anonymously” (using either Bitcoin or Visa gift cards) and directly download it, rather than forcing people to go through the Google Play Store.

WhatsApp

Pros: Everyone uses it, it uses Signal’s encryption protocol, it’s super straightforward to use, it has a desktop app, and it also encrypts calls.

Cons: Owned by Facebook, WhatsApp is not open source, has no password protection and no ephemeral messaging option, is a bit of a forensic nightmare, and its key change notifications are opt-in rather than default.

The primary use case for WhatsApp is to keep the content of your communications with your cousin who doesn’t care about security out of the NSA’s dragnet. The encryption WhatsApp uses is good, but it’s otherwise a pretty unremarkable app with regards to security features. It’s extremely easy to use, is widely used by people who don’t even care about privacy, and it actually provides a little cover due to that fact.

The biggest problem with WhatsApp appears to be that it doesn’t necessarily delete data, but rather deletes only the record of that data, making forensic recovery of your conversations possible if your device is taken from you. That said, as long as you remain in control of your device, WhatsApp can be an excellent way to keep your communications private while not using obvious “security tools.”

Finally, while rumors of a “WhatsApp backdoor” have been greatly exaggerated, if WhatsApp DOES seem like the correct option for you, it is definitely a best practice to enable the feature which notifies you when a contact’s key has changed.

Facebook Secret Messages

Pros: This app is widely used, relies on Signal’s encryption protocol, offers ephemeral messaging, and is mostly easy to use.

Cons: You need to have a Facebook account to use it, it has no desktop availability, it’s kind of hard to figure out how to start a conversation, there’s no password protection, and your username is your “Real Name” as defined by Facebook standards.

Facebook finally rolled out “Secret Messages” for the Facebook Messenger app. While the Secret Messages are actually pretty easy to use once you’ve gotten them started, starting a Secret Message can be a pain in the ass. The process is not terribly intuitive, and people may forget to do it entirely as it’s not Facebook Messenger’s default status. Like WhatsApp, there’s no password protection option, but Facebook Secret Messages does offer the option for ephemerality. Facebook Secret Messages also shares the whole “not really a security tool” thing with WhatsApp, meaning that it’s fairly innocuous and can fly under the radar if you’re living somewhere people are being targeted for using secure communication tools.


There are certainly other tools out there in addition to those discussed above, and use of nearly any encryption is preferable to sending plaintext messages. The most important things you can do are choose a solution (or series of solutions) which works well for you and your contacts, and employ good security practices in addition to using encrypted communications.

There is no one correct way to do security. Even flawed security is better than none at all, so long as you have a working understanding of what those flaws are and how they can hurt you.

— By Elle Armageddon

  1. WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger’s “Secret conversation,” Google Allo’s “Incognito mode” 

  2. Of course, it’s always best not to have relationship processing conversations via text at all, if you can avoid it! 

  3. Encryption at rest means that your saved data is also encrypted, not just encrypted across the wire. By default, MacOS doesn’t encrypt hard drives. 

category: 

Comments

And for people who want another good encrypted service thats based outside the US
there is Telegram.
It has more options than signal and more security features and is used by 200 million international users.
They don't advertise and don't turn over your data. AND its password protected.

No, no, a thousand times no. This comment is so false I question whether the person is posting out of ignorance or malice. Telegram is crap, absolute crap, and no one should use it.

Telegram has so many security problems it's laughable that any person knowledgeable about encrypted messaging options would even compare it to Signal, which is upheld as an example of what encrypted messaging should be by literally everyone who knows anything about security and cryptography. It doesn't get better than Signal and it doesn't get worse than Telegram.

https://gizmodo.com/why-you-should-stop-using-telegram-right-now-1782557415

In addition to the problems outlined in that article. In one of the batches of Snowden leaks, it was also discussed in a government memo by agents working in Europe that many islamic terrorist groups were using Telegram, but it was implied to be okay because they were able to break Telegram's protocol. We don't have any hard evidence of what that conversation was referring to, but the myriad of problems with Telegram have been known for years now.

TLDR: Use Signal. It's the obvious security choice among all options available. It is run by anarchist comrades who's dream is to make government surveillance impossible (not liberal activists who just want a toned down surveillance as is typically the case with all similar projects), and they have already proven themselves legally to not be logging any metadata (who's contacting who) on anybody, which is more than you can say for every other communication (let alone encrypted) platform on the planet:
https://whispersystems.org/bigbrother/eastern-virginia-grand-jury/

I don't use any of mentioned in this article.
Here is wikileaks info about the cia hacked portable software:
Along the tens of hacking tools included, there was one that was different from the others. Named "Fine Dining," this isn't a zero-day exploit or vulnerability like most, but a collection of malware-laced applications.
Designed for field operations, Fine Dining is for situations where the agent has to infect a computer while being watched by the victim.
https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/security/vault-7-cia-developed-24-...
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vault_7
https://wikileaks.org/ciav7p1/

"ProtonMail requires Javascript. Enable Javascript and reload this page to continue."

har har har... I thought you were better at paranoia than this, Rebelll.

I'd very much like to be provided with proofs that Javasnitch no longer can be used to de-anonymize users, slicing through encrypted channels.

Javascript is used on ProtonMail to encrypt/decrypt emails using your browser and not on the ProtonMail servers, which in fact allows more security by not giving ProtonMail any access to your private key/passphrase.

Hmmm... I've seen quite a few cases of Swiss authorities seamlessly collaborating with the FBI. Including the infamous case of Roman Polanski recently, who got into trouble simply after setting foot in Switzerland. Knowing what interests truly are behind this little country that hosts some of the most important banks and corporations on the planet, I wouldn't put any insurgent money on servers hosted there... especially not if it advocates revolt against capitalist interests in Switzerland, like Nestlé for instance.

The plus side of Riseup is how their collective are accountable for whatever they do. They go many "stakeholders" of all kinds. But I don't thing their servers are any less protected than those held into an old underground military base in Switzerland. They may have ultra-tough protection against some hostile governments and interests, but the issue is always with the friendly governments and interests..

I stopped to use riseup, after checking who is behind it.
the founder has nothing to do with anarchism, he helped to civil society groups (NGOs) in africa and east europe (possibly ukraine, the cia revolution). he help to the people who make the cia revolutions to secure their communication.
beside it, riseup is not used only by anarchists than by more than 100 000 activists. and many of these activists can be cia revolutionaries in libya, egypt, bolivia, etc.

Micah Anderson is the founder,
https://www.crunchbase.com/person/micah-anderson#/entity
he is also in the Calyx Institute, Board of Director.
https://www.calyxinstitute.org/about/board/micah-anderson
look at this, the cia exported revolutions and he is always there: shared free software skills and strategies with civil society tech workers in Africa and Central/Eastern Europe,
but look who is there as advisory panel, the cia:
https://www.calyxinstitute.org/about/advisory_panel
Brian Snow joined the National Security Agency in 1971 where he became a cryptologic designer and security systems architect. Brian spent his first 20 years at NSA doing and directing research that developed cryptographic components and secure systems. Many cryptographic systems serving the U.S. government and military use his algorithms; they provide capabilities not previously available and span a range from nuclear command and control to tactical radios for the battlefield. Computer Security, Network Security and strong Assurance were major aspects for these systems. He created and managed NSA’s Secure Systems Design division in the 1980s.

Paranoia indeed, but go easy on it as it can also become mind-numbing and ultimately self-defeating...

Brian Snow's an old fart who left the NSA way before absolute mad man Keith Alexander was appointed as director. he's been doing educative lectures for everybody on encryption and IT security since he left the NSA, like this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHxiK9Ehi-0

Back in the '90s the agency was powerful for its Echelon program, as well as for being the main provider of hardware for the intel agencies, but nowhere near as Orwellian as it became during the Bush years and after. Before Alexander, it didn't care too much about both micro-surveillance and big data surveillance.

All the other well-known names in Calyx, like Perry Barlow, Poitras and Freitas have been at the forefront of the internet privacy projects we all know They're civil libertarian liberals, yes, but hardly collaborators. In your same logic, the ACLU are also the enemy just because they are involved into the US court system....

The State is bad idea, but not everyone in the government are control freak maniacs, James Bond villains, or cowards putting people in jail just for the bucks or the kicks. 'course there's been this growing trend lately, though...

In addition, I think the only way to really have really safe servers in the current world would be through a p2p resource-sharing encrypted network like Tor or Magnets. Unlimited numbers of decentralized nodes sharing server space and holding the encrypted data of everyone.

I didn't say that people should use protonmail, my comment was more about wikileaks and list of software people should be careful.

The CIA leaks in no way affect Signal or any of the apps talked about here. They have always been able to get around encrypted messaging apps (rather than attacking them directly) by putting malware on specifically targeted phones to spy on the messages before they are encrypted and sent out. There is no defense against this except to be very careful about downloading files and install operating system updates as soon as they are available.

For what it's worth, according to Apple and Google (whose technologies we are unfortunately dependent on), all the vulnerabilities in the CIA leaks have been patched already in the most recent version of their operating systems.

None of those options are safe. In fact, those are probably the worst options available. What a ridiculous article.

I use ProtonMail.

An absurd claim. Signal is better than Protonmail in pretty much every way. Protonmail is probably okay to be used if you need to (The people communicating don't have GPG set up and the message is urgent / the messages you want to share are too long for a signal conversation).

more examples of anarchists being so topical, so practical with the screens in our hands ie unimagining. see here, the issues of the day, engagement, immersion, relevant opinion pieces and hand-to-hand networking.

more example of anti-anarchist trolls who can't fucking write coherent sentences. Or I guess I'm too Leftist or something to comprehend such literary *brilliance*.

i've never laid claim to any brilliance. your comprehension is surely fine, though you may indeed be of the left if you are so quick to assume such attitudes towards anarchist activity and theory cannot come from other anarchists.

Hey -

I appreciate this guide and the idea behind it. However the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has said pretty clearly that they don't recommend WhatsApp anymore:

https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2016/10/where-whatsapp-went-wrong-effs-fou...

I think that it is really worth considering their recommendation.

Other options:

- cryptocat (pros: runs in your browser; cons: runs in your browser :D )
- Pidgin + OTR over XMPP (pros: ancient; cons: more ancient than the Old Ones :P )

...and of course, building your own radio network. :) Or stealing my recipe when I get it ready. :D

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