Encryption in Messaging Apps: How Secure Are Your Communications?

Encryption in Messaging Apps: How Secure Are Your Communications?

September 30

Anti-virus software and firewalls are common security technologies we’ve been taught to prioritize. Encryption deserves the same respect. Every day, we transmit sensitive details such as account passwords and personally identifiable information across email and other messaging platforms, unaware that doing so is equivalent to leaving your door unlocked in a burglary hotspot. You can be a sitting duck, or make a dedicated effort to protect your communications by using encryption.

By encrypting your messages, you can keep unscrupulous hackers out and keep your info private by ensuring that it can only be read by intended recipients. Although AOL, Yahoo Mail, and other popular webmail programs lack built-in encryption, Google is setting adoption standards for the competition to follow. Using an HTTPS connection, Google automatically encrypts email sent back and forth across Gmail in “always on” fashion. The search giant is reportedly working with its mortal enemy Yahoo to deliver end-to-end encryption so users of both services can turn it on and off at their leisure.

Encryption is far more prevalent on the desktop side of email and generally gives you more control as well. For example, in Outlook 2013, encrypting your message is as simple as adjusting a few settings, composing, and hitting “Send”. You can also configure Outlook to automatically encrypt all outgoing emails for set-it-and-forget-it convenience.

Encryption Beyond Email

Email is still the bee’s knees, but it’s just one of several ways to communicate in the digital era; one of several mediums that needs protection. Consumers and businesses alike make extensive use of instant messaging, video chat, and other apps to communicate in real-time. Hackers watch these channels closely and with alarming ease, can compromise their communications without the victims noticing a thing. The good thing is that encryption exists for just about any messaging platform worth using.

Skype provides default encryption for all communications, including instant messaging and video chat as well as voice calls made over the internet. Thing is, it’s only available for Skype-to-Skype sessions. So if you use your Skype number to call a client on a cell phone, as Skype explains, the part of the call that takes place over the wireless network is not encrypted. This basically means that if the person you call is using an unsecure connection, the call can be hacked the moment they answer the phone.

Google Hangouts, a direct Skype competitor, takes a similar approach to encryption. Instant messages are protected with the same HTTPS-based encryption used for Gmail messages. Hangout phone calls and video chats are encrypted with Secure Real-Time Transport Protocol (SRTP), which uses two variations of the industry standard AES algorithm for audio and video respectively. As is the case with Skype, the voice component of Hangout calls made to cellular phones or land lines is encrypted on Google’s end, but unencrypted once it reaches the carrier’s network.

You expect powerhouses like Microsoft and Google to provide adequate protection for their legions of users, but there are alternatives in lesser known names, too. There’s a new wave of so-called “secure messaging apps” designed to give users a peace of mind by offering out of the box security. Some, like, Babel for instance, leverage encryption. Others, like, Mark Cuban’s Cyber Dust, rely more on making text messages vanish before the bad guys can get their hands on them. Check out this article on five of the best secure messaging apps to get a feel for what’s available on this market.

Encrypting Everything

The crazy thing about security technologies like encryption is that many people don’t take the initiative to use them despite knowing they exist. Fortunately, the Tech Gods recognize this and are responding accordingly. Apple rolled out default encryption in the iOS 8 update that accompanied the recent iPhone 6 launch. Google plans to introduce the same in Android “L”, which is currently in beta and slated for a full release later this year. Both mobile platforms have a lot to offer by not only encrypting SMS and instant messages, but contacts, reminders, photos, and call history as well.

With everyone from hackers to government entities snooping around inboxes and servers, we all need to think about the privacy of our messages. Encryption isn’t 100 percent bulletproof, but locking the doors and punching in the alarm code won’t stop a bulldozer from crashing through your living room either. Be smart, strap up, and protect your communications the best you can.

Photo Credit: Alvaro Ibanez via Flickr