Don’t Trust Those ‘Secure’ Messaging Apps- Popular communication alternatives provide nothing but a false sense of security, a fun challenge for hackers, and a field day for the CIA.

Recent political turmoil has driven a stampede of smartphone users to encrypted messaging services, so much so that service providers are having a hard time keeping up with demand. The exodus to these digital havens might come across as reasonable given social media’s newfound penchant for censorship and deplatforming. However, the public record shows that encrypted messaging apps, despite the litany of high-profile celebrity endorsements, aren’t what they appear to be. Lurking beneath the assurances of confidentiality are unsettling facts that raise doubts about the wisdom of following the herd.

The mainstream press has been talking up apps like Signal and Telegram. The New York Times in particular. That, in and of itself, should set off alarm bells. Signal, for example, has received millions of dollars over the years from a bureaucratic spin-off of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The Broadcast Board of Governors, rebranded as the U.S. Agency for Global Media, has been an ardent supporter of Signal through its Open Technology Fund. The U.S. Agency for Global Media is the foreign propaganda arm of the State Department and has historical links to clandestine regime-change operations.

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The Signal project is run by a guy who won’t tell anyone his real name. Would you buy insurance from someone like that, much less trust them with your physical safety? Another indicator that something is amiss. Said guy goes by the handle of Moxie Marlinspike. He likes to create the impression of a radical anarchist who’s leading a noble battle against government surveillance. Which is unusual considering how acquainted Marlinspike appears to be with government officials. Indeed, they liked him so much they financed him.

Telegram likewise has some notable advocates despite its questionable security. Enrique Tarrio, who currently leads the Proud Boys, described Telegram’s platform as “the darkest part of the web.” Which sounds like a glowing testimonial by an ostensibly credible figure. Readers should note that based on court documents viewed by Reuters, federal officials indicate that Tarrio has worked with law enforcement as an informant on a number of cases. In an interview with Reuters Tarrio stated, “I don’t recall any of this.” Keep in mind that infiltration and subversion are genuine threats to secure messaging systems. In fact, online providers could even facilitate such monitoring by adding hidden members to messaging groups.

Don’t even ask about Facebook’s WhatsApp messenger. The company openly admits that it collects more than enough metadata to dispel any illusions about personal privacy.

All of this underscores an inconvenient truth about apps which Ken Thompson, the creator of UNIX, spelled out nearly four decades ago. In his excellent Turing Award Lecture Thompson warned, “You can’t trust code that you did not totally create yourself.” Primarily because, as the SolarWinds debacle illustrated, backdoors are a grave threat. And it just so happens that the American intelligence community has a heavily documented record of planting backdoors in software, one that goes all the way back to the beginning of the Cold War, with global business interests like Crypto AG that outwardly appeared to be legitimate. The Swiss are neutral, right? Nope, not when they’re in bed with the CIA. Please understand that the organizations which deployed the compromised encryption technology sold by Crypto AG mistakenly believed that it was going to make them more secure. Allied governments naively trusted state secrets to gear that they didn’t design, giving spies a perfect opportunity.

Even if encrypted messaging apps were, by some miracle, free of backdoors (dream on) intelligence agencies would still have a field day breaching app security. Researchers from the National Security Agency concede as much in a paper entitled The Inevitability of Failure. This paper concludes that “current security efforts suffer from the flawed assumption that adequate security can be provided in applications with the existing security mechanisms of mainstream operating systems.”

In plain English: it doesn’t matter how secure a messaging app claims to be if hackers can compromise the underlying code running in the guts of a smartphone. Thanks to WikiLeaks it’s known that the CIA has constructed a whole array of tools for executing that mission. As President Obama remarked during his final year in office, American spies have “more capacity than anybody both offensively and defensively.” And it’s not just surgically targeted attacks; they’re capable of hacking endpoints on an industrial scale.

Proponents of encrypted messaging apps have argued that, hey, they’re still better than nothing. Sadly these apps are often worse than nothing because they provide users with a false sense of security. Rather than being an obstacle to security services they end up acting as a beacon. A sign that users have something to hide. Something which merits further investigation.

It’s not like this sort of vulnerability is a new phenomenon. Consider the failed coup d’état in Turkey which took place in 2016. Participants in the attempted putsch used an encrypted messaging app known as ByLock. Yet instead of protecting the conspirators from counterintelligence officers ByLock made users and their network activity stand out like veritable glow sticks. Out of the total population of 215,000 ByLock users in Turkey at the time of the coup, approximately 23,000 were arrested.

Some encrypted messaging apps blatantly facilitate investigation. The Telegram messaging app has a feature called “People Nearby,” which (when enabled) allows other users to determine how far they are from you. Under normal circumstances this corresponds to a large amorphous region (e.g. somewhere in a 20-mile radius). But experts have found that a malicious user could easily reconfigure their phone to collect three separate distance measurements and thereby triangulate the exact location of your phone. Can you imagine what would happen if this this feature were silently enabled by an automatic software patch?

Dear reader, the road ahead for this republic is fraught with hazards. American political leaders are unaccustomed to cowering in fear. They probably find the sensation completely alien and intolerable. Which might help to explain why the capitol was flooded with way too many National Guard troops. In a spasm of insecurity the elites might be tempted to wield power simply to convince both themselves and their donors that they’re still in charge. Entire swathes of the population may soon find themselves designated as terrorists while lawmakers isolate themselves within “green zones.” If this is our future then one of the worst things you can do is to put your faith in an allegedly secure encrypted messaging app. Expect mainstream technology to fail and seek out new, unexpected, ways to communicate using mechanisms that aren’t controlled by shadowy third parties.

You’ve been warned.

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One thought on “Don’t Trust Those ‘Secure’ Messaging Apps- Popular communication alternatives provide nothing but a false sense of security, a fun challenge for hackers, and a field day for the CIA.

  1. Sounds like the dark side (this illegitimate government) is desperate to scare people away from signal and telegram.

    The example given was through infiltration and I agree with that, any group of people using these programs for group chat is likely going to be infiltrated and that is nothing new. Hence the concept of small cells and compartmentalized transfer of need to know information to cells of very small groups if you plan to operate is secret. There will never be a way to operate in secret when you are dealing with groups of more than 3 to 5 people.

    Even encryption is a farce for gov actors now that they have quantum computers. There is no encryption they can not break with quantum computers, period. However, the operation cost to do that makes it impossible for them to use it for anything short of national security. They have neither the time nor the money to use those resources for general decryption of millions of people messages.

    I don’t know about telegram but signal is open source. There are a lot of people dissecting that relatively insignificant amount of code… Its a small app, not an operating system. If it had back doors, they would be found pretty quickly. The app is not what you should be worried about.

    The phones that run the app are a different story. You people running google android or apple iOS phone should expect that nothing you do on them is private. Are you kidding me? If you think anything is private on those phones you are as stupid as the Parlor people were for relying on their enemies to provide their bandwidth.

    There are options for privacy people. Look up the /e/ OS phones that have ZERO google software on them and that is not the only alternative OS available, its just the best one IMHO. Don’t forget the hardware side either, if you are going to go through the work of building a secure phone, don’t freaking buy hardware made in China or you are just trading google for the CCP.

    Bottom line, nothing digital is secure but unless you are James Bond, you can have a reasonable amount of security with a little bit of effort. What you can’t do is participate in social media run by your enemies and still expect privacy. You can’t be putting games on your phone, you can’t be running all those convenient little apps you currently have, even weather apps track you.

    I call this phone I am using my semi-smart phone because I give up many convenience features to be secure. I have no text to speech, guess what, google or apple provides that. I have no social media, I have no Pandora, no iHeart, no Shazam, no YouTube. I run the handful of secure, open source apps that came with the OS. There are alternatives for the things you really need, Magic Earth replaces google maps for instance and has just as good navigation features.

    Don’t be lazy. Be willing to sacrifice some convenience features for privacy or just live with being spied on 24/7.

    Once the civil war starts, your phone is going into the river anyway and the same techniques the resistance fighters used against the Nazis to communicate will still work as well as they did 90 years ago.

    Like

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