Securing text messages.
In the digital communication age we more connected to each other than any other time, but this increase in connectivity has also created vulnerabilities throughout our modern lives. One the most efficient means of modern communications is the text message. Unfortunately it is also one of the least secure forms of communication in the modern age. Every time a text message is sent it travels unsecured from the sending phone to a SMS server which is likely subject to metadata surveillance then to the receiving phone. Anywhere this chain the text message’s content can easily be observed and recorded by criminals or nosy governments. When I talk about digital security and encryption many times I hear people say things indicating that they don’t have anything to hide so why go to the trouble of securing things with encryption. Well, consider sometimes it might not be malice from our government but incompetence, as a Veteran I’m one of the thousands of vets that has had my personal information hacked from the VA. If you’re a public servant how many sets of orders, travel claims, or medical records have been lost or misplaced by the support personnel of your agency? Not that there aren’t great hard working people in support roles but things slip through the cracks, and I don’t trust uncle sam to safe guard my personal communications. I think people aught to consider that if our government is capable of recording and cataloging your metadata and texts so are criminals and foreign powers who could potentially use that information against you. If you work in the Military, Law Enforcement, or Security you are already on the front lines fighting to protect others so don’t leave a critical vulnerability in your personal communications by leaving your texts unsecured for anyone to come along and steal.
Securing data without changing your routine, Signal.
Being able to continue normal unsecured text communications is key to making the transition to secure texts. There are a few encryption apps available to achieve this goal of sending a receiving secure texts, however most are not practical because they tend to be inclusive and interface with existing communications routine. Furthermore other apps often require usernames, pins or passwords as well as requiring you to open a separate app to use normal unsecured text messages. The best app I’ve been able to find is, Signal by Open Whisper Systems. It works on Android and Iphones and each can communicate securely to the other regardless of phone type or operating system. Signal is capable of secure encryption via text, attachments(photos and videos), and voice. On Android it replaces the factory text messaging app and automatically goes secure to other Signal users while still functioning the same as the factory texting app with unsecured texts. It’s extremely easy to use, since it can be employed gradually and does not interrupt or change normal texting. Signal is opened the same to view or send texts securely to other Signal users or to use regular unsecured text messages. Most of my family and some of my coworkers use Signal, but not everyone does which is not a problem since I can use the Signal to communicate with everyone, the only difference is when I communicate with other Signal users everything is encrypted.
Signal: How it works and Features.
Signal is Open Source which is the gold standard for true security since it ensures there are no back-doors built into the code which can be exploited. Signal uses data on a smart phone to transmit and receive texts, phone calls(VOIP only), and attachments. Using data to transmit communications has profound benefits to the end user. Since Signal uses data to transmit a “text message” instead of a SMS server, messages can be transmitted and received from any location with an internet connection not just where cell service is available. I have personally used Signal to communicate with family members while they are overseas via wifi hot spots which is huge security advantage. Although I don’t often use the encrypted Voice over IP (VOIP) portion of Signal I would differently use it if I were overseas to call family since I would only need an internet connection to do so. Furthermore since Signal uses data instead of SMS servers, the SMS server never has access to any of your communication and never stores any of your data or texts, there is no record of a text being sent or received when communicating within the Signal app. Other advantages of using Signal for messaging is no size limit that I can find for attachments, I routinely send videos or pictures that are too large for a normal SMS/MMS messages to family members and friends. Best of all Signal is 100% free and has no ads and is funded via donations and grants.
Securing personal communications can be a complicated and in depth topic for which many different tools are available. Signal is an excellent all around secure communication tool that prevents your communication within the app from being stored or compromised in route to its destination. The communications inside Signal could still be comprised if either phone being used to communicate is physically compromised, so be mindful of it’s limitations. For more sensitive text communications I recommend using Wicker which has a feature which enables a sender to put a ‘self destruct’ timer on a message so that after it’s read it will auto delete erasing the record of the message. The reason I choose Signal over Wicker or other encryption apps is that it requires almost no adjustment to how I communicate with others via text. I urge you secure your personal text communications regardless of what tool or process you use to do so, it’s too easy not too.
Both Signal and Wicker can be found on Google Play and Itunes.
Please leave any questions or comments below.