Titus Stahl

Comparing encrypted messengers November 2016 edition

Nowadays, there are lots of more or less popular encrypted communications apps that are promoted and advertised everywhere, making it hard to choose one that is both easy to use, secure and sufficiently sustainable to warrant long-term commitment. The Electronic Frontier Foundation used to have a quite nice instant messenger scorecard that compared messenger services regarding their privacy properties. As they did not include some interesting projects (but included lots of non-free-software apps that are not an option for me anyway), I made the table below that refers to selection of popular encrypted mobile messaging projects. (Update: This is based on my best understanding of the matter, but I am no technologist and this should not be treated as definitely reliable advice).

Some remarks about the list below that are only of interest to people that care about the technical details:

  • I included only projects which are usable on mobile devices which is the primary access to messaging for most people. For this reason, I did not include Ricochet which has only a desktop version. I also did not include XMPP with Omemo encryption which – although well implemented on Android in Conversations – does not have group chat working in a user-friendly way and, at the moment, seems to have no substantive advantages over Matrix. I also did not include Tox and Ring – two peer-to-peer messengers – because they are both very unfinished and the P2P architecture seems to rule out mobile use for the time being.
  • I treat end-to-end encryption with forward-secrecy as a solved problem. Thus, I do not include messengers like Hangouts or Facebook Chat that have only transport encryption.
  • As this problem is solved, the main issue in selecting a sustainable secure messaging solution is how much power users have versus the provider if that provider changes their mind about security properties. This involves two issues: First, whether client and server are Free Software, i.e. whether users are allowed to fork the code and restore desirable properties. Second, whether the protocol allows for federation, i.e. whether users can set up their own servers without losing their contacts in the network.

Based on these considerations, I recommend: (updated to clarify that Signal is as of yet to be preferred for important information and to emphasize Beta status of Riot and Briar):

  • if you have important information to protect now, experts seem to agree that Signal is the best option,
  • once their encryption is out of Beta and thoroughly reviewed, Riot for everyday mobile and desktop text messaging, as well as for phone and video calls. Riot is based on the Matrix protocol. This provides federation and end-to-end encryption in a completely Free Software ecosystem.
  • When Briar is released and throroughly reviewed, it will be a useful addition for people / situations with high security needs (activism, authoritarian countries, etc.). Briar goes one step further and even abolishes servers that could collect metadata and works over Tor, Direct Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. As this makes things slightly more complicated, it might not be the easiest option for everyday use.


WhatsApp

Threema

Telegram

Signal

Wire

Riot / Matrix

Briar2

Essential properties

Free Software / source code can be checked

No

No

Client only

Yes1

Client only

Yes

Yes

Solid end-to-end encryption protocol

Yes

Yes

Unclear3

Yes

Yes

Beta4

Beta2

Decentralized architecture / provider-independent

No

No

No

No

No

Yes

Yes

Desirable privacy properties

Works without knowing your phone number

No

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

You can verify that encryption keys really belong to remote account

Manually

Manually

Manually

Manually

Manually

Manually

Enforced

Metadata protected against government and provider surveillance

No

No

No

No

No

No

Yes

Works on Android devices without Google account?

No

No

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Features

Desktop client

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Planned

Encrypted phone calls

Yes

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Works even when the Internet is shut off

No

No

No

No

No

No

Yes

Extra features

Groups

Groups, File Sharing, Polls

(Non-encrypted) groups, bots

Groups, File Sharing

Groups, Video Chat, File Sharing, Bots

Groups, Video Chat, File Sharing, Integrations with RSS, IRC, Slack, Bots

Decentralized forums, encrypted social networking


1 The Signal client on Android requires the non-free Google Play framework to be installed. The phone call feature also seems to rely on non-Free server components.

2 Briar has not seen a release yet, information is based on the source repository.

3 Telegram’s encryption only works if explicitly chosen and it is widely criticized for being not based on solid cryptography.

4 Riot’s encryption is in Beta and not automatically enabled for all chats (but can be manually enabled). However, it will be enforced in private chat once the Beta phase is concluded.

Critical Theory Reading Group in Groningen, starting October 3rd

This fall, I am making a new attempt to get a critical theory reading group for students going at our Groningen faculty. We will discuss literature ranging from Marx to the Frankfurt School, but also (depending on interest) include feminist or post-colonial literature. It’s open for everyone in the university (not just philosophers) and outside of academia, does not presuppose any prior knowledge and will be focused on reading original texts and having an open discussion. It will start October 3 and will take place 5-7 p.m. each week. People who are interested in joining or just want to know more should email me. Please also email me if you cannot make it on Monday evenings in case we decide to reschedule.

Edit your Zotero Notes with Vim (or any other Unix editor)

The program Zotero is, hands-down, the best Free Software academic reference management tool. As such, it is indispensable for academics who want to remain in control of their own means of production. It works together very well with LibreOffice and it’s quite doable to create any citation style that is not yet available in its big library.

Since recently, I have also begun to use its note-taking features, as it is quite convenient to have notes directly attached to references in its library; especially as you can then also share them in groups, etc. However, one downside is that the note-taking interface is slow – and by slow, I mean that it often takes up to 10 seconds for a key press to appear on the screen. In addition, the custom note-taking interface does not allow me to make use of the years of muscle memory for the vim commands that I have acquired.

As I found out now, there’s a wonderful tool called zotero-cli which lets you manage your notes from the command line.

Installation is easy (once you have pip installed):

1
2
sudo pip install zotero-cli
zotcli --configure

Once installed and provisioned with a Zotero API key, you can choose your favorite editor by setting the VISUAL environment variable (gvim -f in my case), and take advantage of all the advanced features that you are used to, like this:

zotcli add-note query-string.

Creating an Ubuntu package of Wire (an encrypted messenger)

Update: 21 November 2016 – I now recommend Riot (which is based on Matrix) as the best encrypted messenger, as it has similar security to Wire / Signal and it is decentralized, making users independent from any particular provider.

The encrypted messaging app Wire recently open-sourced its client code. Wire is a very well-made messenger with many more features than Signal; and it has end-to-end encrypted multi-party audio calls and video chats which makes it a useful addition to Signal and other encrypted messengers. While they offer desktop apps for Windows and OS X for download, no packaged apps exist for Linux. In this post, I will briefly explain how to create an installable Ubuntu package of the Wire desktop app.

It has to be said, first, that the Wire client code is no Free Software – it does not allow for all the rights that go with genuine open source licenses –, the server is still closed-source, and there is no decentralization. In these respects, I am still putting my hopes on Matrix, once they’ve implemented end-to-end encryption, to provide a more usable and more open form of messaging and group calls.

But until that happens, Wire might be the only usable Skype alternative for someone like me who has to participate regularly in group calls as part of my job. Signal does not have group call functionality and programs like Tox and Ring are not usable enough for recommending them to less technically inclined colleagues. They also don’t have mobile versions that are ready for everyday use.

Thus, for people who want to leave Skype for a more secure alternative, Wire is very attractive. However, for Linux users, the only option so far has been to login via the Wire web app (which defeats the point of end-to-end encryption to some extent).

As Wire has now published the source code for its desktop app, it is really easy to create a .deb package for Ubuntu.

Update Feb 2017: The instructions below are outdated. Wire now seemingly provides Linux packages on their download page.

~~You need to have Git, Node, Grunt and electron-installer-debian installed for this to work.

If you don’t you can install these packages as follows in Ubuntu:

1
2
sudo apt-get install nodejs git
sudo npm install -g grunt-cli electron-installer-debian

After having done this, you have to perform the following steps:

1
2
3
4
5
git clone https://github.com/wireapp/wire-desktop.git
cd wire-desktop
npm install
grunt linux
electron-installer-debian --src wrap/build/Wire-linux-x64 --dest wrap/installers/ --arch amd64

This will leave you (if everything works) with a .deb file in the wrap/installers directory that you then can install with sudo dpkg -i wrap/installers/*.deb. Afterwards, you will can start the desktop app with /usr/share/wireinternal/Wire. For some reason, it does not get added to the desktop menu, but under Unity you can pin it to your quick start panel once you have started it once manually.~~

A brief talk about surveillance at the Groningen Night of Philosophy

I will give a short lecture titled “Why mass surveillance is wrong even if you have nothing to hide” at the Groningen Night of Philosophy tonight (room 4, 9.30p.m.). The event is unfortunately already sold out, but if you have tickets, please drop in!

The talk is based on my recent publication about “Indiscriminate Mass surveillance and the Public Sphere” (Open Access).

For those attending and for everyone else, here are the slides (PDF download)

Slides of mass surveillance talk

Adorno on how to look at television and how to use punctuation

Although Adorno has the reputation of being highly abstract, anyone who has at least read Minima Moralia knows that this reputation is not justified – Adorno quite often uses small details of daily life to explain how the totality of social relations can be discovered by looking at such details.

Next to his more famous publications, two smaller and less well-known essays are quite interesting in this regard:

How to look at television (link goes to JSTOR) is a 1954 publication, based on the research on mass culture Adorno did in the United States:

Every spectator of a television mystery knows with absolute certainty how it is going to end. Tension is but superficially maintained and is unlikely to have a serious effect any more. On the contrary, the spectator feels on safe ground all the time. This longing for “feeling on safe ground”-reflecting an infantile need for protection, rather than his desire for a thrill-is catered to. The element of excitement is preserved only with tongue in cheek. Such changes fall in line with the potential change from a freely competitive to a virtually “closed” society into which one wants to be admitted or from which one fears to be rejected. Everything somehow appears “predestined.”

Punctuation marks (link goes to a PDF file):

Literary dilettantes can be recognized by their desire to connect everything. Their products hook sentences together with logical connectives even though the logical relationship asserted by those connectives does not hold. To the person who cannot truly conceive anything as a unit, anything that suggests disintegration or discontinuity is unbearable; only a person who can grasp totality can understand caesuras. But the dash provides instruction in them. In the dash, thought becomes aware of its fragmentary character. It is no accident that in the era of the progressive degeneration of language, this mark of punctuation is neglected precisely insofar as it fulfills its function: when it separates things that feign a connection. All the dash claims to do now is to prepare us in a foolish way for surprises that by that very token are no longer surprising.

These observations can also be useful when reading philosophy papers!

Easy-to-use, open-source encrypted messaging and file-transfer app Peerio now available on Android, iOS

Peerio is an end-to-end encrypted, open-source messaging app that runs on the Desktop (via Chrome/Chromium) and since recently also on Android and iOS (I have posted about it before).

Peerio is especially useful for sharing large files – something that is often difficult via email or requires using insecure services like Dropbox. It also has group chat functionality and it is – compared to alternatives like PGP and OTR – very easy to use for computer novices. It works, however, only with an account on Peerio’s central server and thus potentially leaks meta-data (and makes you depend on a commercial entity). It is also less established than PGP and OTR and its security promises should therefore be treated skeptically, especially as most users will not be able to check updates for correspondence with the source code. It allows one to have much more private conversations than most other popular apps, though, and therefore might be a good compromise to use for communications with people who do not have the skills and time for more advanced solutions.

If you’re interested in using Peerio, my user name is tstahl and my cryptographic identity (a so-called “MiniLock key”) is D4wYAnKrcrEXWu7tZdpV8mULB8fvNguYymHu3Z6GjMDjN. If you use this referral link, you also get 250MB extra storage space.

New Article: Indiscriminate Mass Surveillance and the Public Sphere

Ethics and Information Technology has published a new article of mine, entitled “Indiscriminate Mass Surveillance and the Public Sphere” (direct PDF download from this web site).

Recent disclosures suggest that many governments apply indiscriminate mass surveillance technologies that allow them to capture and store a massive amount of communications data belonging to citizens and non-citizens alike. This article argues that traditional liberal critiques of government surveillance that center on an individual right to privacy cannot completely capture the harm that is caused by such surveillance because they ignore its distinctive political dimension. As a complement to standard liberal approaches to privacy, the article develops a critique of surveillance that focuses on the question of political power in the public sphere.

The article is published under an Open Access license.