If you're an Android user, Google just updated your device's Messages app, in response to Apple's brilliant iMessage. Called RCS or Rich Communication Services, this application will update your phone's default messaging system to make it a complete chat platform that will rival iMessage as well as WhatsApp and Messenger.
Instant messaging has become a battleground, where Apple and Google are competing against Facebook (Messenger and WhatsApp) to become the go-to platform on your phone. There are few apps that perform better than the one you use to chat with friends, family, and coworkers. And as new features become more commercial – tickets, coupons, purchases, transfers and announcements – these platforms become a real source of income.
As we reported this week, more and more countries are becoming RCS compatible with recent updates in Argentina, Chile, Denmark, Italy, Norway, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal and Singapore. Although RCS is being rolled out by carriers around the world, it is Google that is leading the rollout to compete with Apple. RCS is the long awaited upgrade to the standard SMS capability built into our phones. However, SMS is a basic technology best avoided and sadly RCS has not solved one of its most critical problems.
Aside from the animated stickers and the easy-to-access GIFs, messaging comes down to a balancing act between functionality, security and installation base: the installation base on BigTech platforms (Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, iMessage and Google Messages) is clearly good. Likewise, the functionality is good across the board and continues to improve. However, security still leaves something to be desired.
The most original and universal global messaging platform is SMS, available on GSM phones. Apple and Google both use SMS as a fallback solution for those who don't have iMessage (Apple), or who don't have the enhanced chat features offered by Google, which are built around this new RCS (Android ). However, RCS is not an iMessage equivalent, it is completely different and has a glaring problem; that's why Android users should look to WhatsApp or Signal instead of using the basic Android messaging app.
When you send an SMS, the data is encrypted between your phone and the mobile phone relay, so it cannot be easily intercepted over the air. But this is just a simple network security, because once the SMS enters the network, it can be easily intercepted. And because we send SMS over different networks and in different countries, our SMS can travel through a set of different network servers and systems.
In 2016, WhatsApp fixed this problem by adopting end-to-end encryption. Many people reading this article know exactly what this means, but a surprising number of users are still unaware of the differences. This means that the message is secure and that only the sender and the recipient have the decryption key. No one (including the network and WhatsApp) can see what you have sent. iMessage does exactly the same, as long as the message is blue; once the latter turns green, all bets are off.
Google has decided to adopt an updated SMS architecture. Your message is encrypted between your phone and Google's servers, but this message can be decrypted along the way, since you are not the only one with the decryption key. And if the message is linked to other RCS deployments, then it is as insecure as a basic SMS. Plus, while you can control when iMessage uses SMS, you don't have that flexibility with RCS. Google said: "If your chat functions are provided by Google, but your recipient's RCS service is provided by another provider, your messages are routed through Google's RCS backend and then routed to your recipient's RCS backend. ".
German SRLabs warned last year that deploying RCS as an SMS update without a new approach to security exposes most Android users to hacking. The researchers warned that the way Google and carriers deployed RCS would expose users to identity theft, impersonation of a device's number and IP address, interception and tracking. The team said, "RCS is poorly protected in many networks, which allows hackers to take full control of user accounts."
I contacted Google to find out if they had addressed any of the security concerns raised by SRLabs, but my request went unanswered.
The technical details are not of particular importance here. The point is, either your messages are end-to-end encrypted or they are not. And while you probably think that most of your messages are insecure, we all send financial, contact details, and other sensitive information through messages. We even use messaging apps to chat with our co-workers, which is why we rightly expect them to be safe from prying eyes.
As Google explained, its security focuses on the connection between you and Google, not what happens next: “Google's chat features use Transport Layer Security (TLS) encryption to protect your messages. This means that anyone who tries to intercept messages between you and Google would only be able to see encrypted, unreadable text. However, RCS is an industry standard for carrier messaging. This means that messaging applications that support the RCS standard, such as Samsung Messages, can connect to Google's chat functions ”.
Facebook and WhatsApp have both warned that end-to-end encryption is a necessary security measure to prevent content from falling into the wrong hands. Indeed, Facebook even advocates the functionality of secret messages in Messenger to mitigate interference in the server as well as the network used by Messenger. However, Messenger is not end-to-end encrypted by default, so users should switch to WhatsApp.
Finally, Google is reportedly in the process of developing an end-to-end encryption upgrade for its RCS deployment. When this is done, Android users will have an iMessage alternative. In the meantime, I urge you to ensure that your email is fully encrypted. This is why WhatsApp is probably your best option, as it enjoys a large number of updates, including multiple connected devices, which will make it even better. However, if you reject the idea of Facebook accessing your data, although I doubt Google is a better option, go with Signal, the best messenger available today!
Article translated from Forbes US – Author: Zak Doffman
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