The State of Secure Messaging

Posted by Divyank Katira at Jul 15, 2020 03:10 PM |
A look at the protections provided by and threats posed to secure communication online.

This blogpost was edited by Gurshabad Grover and Amber Sinha.

The current benchmark for secure communication online is end-to-end encrypted messaging. It refers to a method of encryption wherein the contents of a message are only readable by the devices of the individuals, or endpoints, participating in the communication. All other Internet intermediaries such as internet service providers, internet exchange points, undersea cable operators, data centre operators, and even the messaging service providers themselves cannot read them. This is achieved through cryptographic mechanisms that allow independent devices to establish a shared secret key over an insecure communication channel, which they then use to encrypt and decrypt messages. Common examples of end-to-end encrypted messaging are applications like Signal and WhatsApp.

This post attempts to give at-risk individuals, concerned citizens, and civil society at large a more nuanced understanding of the protections provided and threats posed to the security and privacy of their communications online.

Threat Model

The first step to assessing security and privacy is to identify and understand actors and risks. End-to-end encrypted messaging applications consider the following threat model:

  • Device compromise: Can happen physically through loss or theft, or remotely. Access to an individual’s device could be gained through technical flaws or coercion (legal, or otherwise). It can be temporary or be made persistent by installing malware on the device.

  • Network monitoring and interference: Implies access to data in transit over a network. All Internet intermediaries have such access. They may either actively interfere with the communication or passively observe traffic.

  • Server compromise: Implies access to the web server hosting the application. This could be achieved through technical flaws, insider access such as an employee, or through coercion (legal, or otherwise). 

End-to-end encrypted messaging aims to offer complete message confidentiality and integrity in the face of server and network compromise, and some protections against device compromise. These are detailed below.

Protections Provided

Secure messaging services guarantee certain properties. For mature services that have received adequate study from researchers, we can assume them to be sound, barring implementation flaws which are described later.

  • Confidentiality: The contents of a message are kept private and the ciphers used are practically unbreakable by adversaries.

  • Integrity: The contents of a message cannot be modified in transit.

  • Deniability: Aims to mimic unrecorded real-world conversations where an individual can deny having said something. Someone in possession of the chat transcript cannot cryptographically prove that an individual authored a particular message. While some applications feature such off-the-record messaging capabilities, the legal applicability of such mechanisms is debatable.

  • Forward and Future Secrecy: These properties aim to limit the effects of a temporary compromise of credentials on a device. Forward secrecy ensures messages collected over the network, which were sent before the compromise, cannot be decrypted. Future secrecy ensures messages sent post-compromise are protected. These mechanisms are easily circumvented in practice as past messages are usually stored on the device being compromised, and future messages can be obtained by gaining persistent access during compromise. These properties are meant to protect individuals aware of these limitations in exceptional situations such as a journalist crossing a border.

Shortcomings

While secure messaging services offer useful protections they also have some shortcomings. It is useful to understand these and their mitigations to minimise risk.

  • Metadata: Information about a communication such as who the participants are, when the messages are sent, where the participants are located, and what the size of a message is can offer important contextual information about a conversation. While some popular messaging services attempt to minimize metadata generation, metadata leakage, in general, is still considered an open problem because such information can be gleaned by network monitoring as well as from server compromise. Application policies around whether such data is stored and for how long it is retained can improve privacy. There are also experimental approaches that use techniques like onion routing to hide metadata.

  • Authentication: This is the process of asserting whether an individual sending or receiving a message is who they are thought to be. Current messaging services trust application servers and cell service providers for authentication, which means that they have the ability to replace and impersonate individuals in conversations. Messaging services offer advanced features to mitigate this risk, such as notifications when a participant’s identity changes, and manual verification of participants’ security keys through other communication channels (in-person, mail, etc.).

  • Availability: An individual’s access to a messaging service can be impeded. Intermediaries may delay or drop messages resulting in what is called a denial of service attack. While messaging services are quite resilient to such attacks, governments may censor or completely shut down Internet access.

  • Application-level gaps: Capabilities offered by services in addition to messaging, such as contact discovery, online status, and location sharing are often not covered by end-to-end encryption and may be stored by the application server. Application policies around how such information is gathered and retained affect privacy.

  • Implementation flaws and backdoors: Software or hardware flaws (accidental or intentional) on an individual’s device could be exploited to circumvent the protections provided by end-to-end encryption. For mature applications and platforms, accidental flaws are difficult and expensive to exploit, and as such are only accessible to Government or other powerful actors who typically use them to surveil individuals of interest (and not for mass surveillance). Intentional flaws or backdoors introduced by manufacturers may also be present. The only defence against these is security researchers who rely on manual inspection to examine software and network interactions to detect them.

Messaging Protocols and Standards

In the face of demands for exceptional access to encrypted communication from governments, and risks of mass surveillance from both governments and corporations, end-to-end encryption is important to enable secure and private communication online. The signal protocol, which is open and adopted by popular applications like WhatsApp and Signal, is considered a success story as it brought end-to-end encryption to over a billion users and has become a de-facto standard.

However, it is unilaterally developed and controlled by a single organisation. Messaging Layer Security (or MLS) is a working group within the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) that is attempting to standardise end-to-end encryption through participation of individuals from corporations, academia, and civil society. The draft protocol offers the standard security properties mentioned above, except for deniability which is still being considered. It incorporates novel research that allows it to scale efficiently for large groups up to thousands of participants, which is an improvement over the signal protocol. MLS aims to increase adoption further by creating open standards and implementations, similar to the Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol used to encrypt much of the web today. There is also a need to look beyond end-to-end encryption to address its shortcomings, particularly around authentication and metadata leakage.

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