Google has quiet android.com/google-features-on-android/summer-2021/#summer-2021-end-to-end-contents”>Updated its Android Messages platform this week to fix a critical vulnerability for hundreds of millions of users. But be warned, that’s not all it seems. Google launched a half-finished product just as the messenger battle intensified. You shouldn’t use this as your first choice – it’s time to switch.
We’re talking about end-to-end encryption, of course. The main difference that sets good messengers apart from others. This is why you should use Signal, iMessage, and WhatsApp while avoiding Telegram, Facebook Messenger, and SMS in particular.
If google first leaked his plans to properly encrypt Android messages were heralded as a big step forward. Under googles take With the global RCS rollout that saved the transition to SMS 2.0 from the patchy efforts of countless wireless carriers, Google finally saw an answer to Apple’s sticky iMessage.
But Google’s problem is that Android Messages doesn’t really meet a market need, it has no place. Yes, Android requires a standard SMS client, and the fact that RCS has updated chat and media capabilities comes in handy. But Android users are well served by cross-platform alternatives, especially WhatsApp, which is much more geared towards its Android user base than those on iOS.
Updating Android messages just seems too little, too late.
Why not enough? When using WhatsApp or Signal, every message you send to an individual or group is end-to-end encrypted. This means that only you and those you send a message to can access the content. Not even the platforms can break open the lock. With iMessage, the same goes for other Apple users, although it will resort to SMS when those messages are not in the Apple ecosystem. The same goes for choosing Signal as the default Android messaging option and essentially replicating the iMessage experience.
Android Messages, which has just expanded its end-to-end encryption from beta to production, has a number of caveats. End-to-end encryption is only used by default if both sender and recipient have chat functionality enabled, and more importantly, it only works for 1: 1 messaging, it currently does not protect group chats. Google announced that there is no schedule they can use to indicate when this serious issue will be addressed.
Google has opted for end-to-end encryption for Signal’s protocol – as is of course used by WhatsApp, the secret chats of Facebook Messenger and Signal. There’s nothing wrong with security if it’s there, it just isn’t there often enough and doesn’t add anything that Android users haven’t already got from other alternatives.
And why too late? This was the year end-to-end messaging encryption really hit the headlines. Yes, we’ve seen lawmakers all over the world complain about their lack of access to user content, which is being blocked by Facebook, Apple and others. But this year, the ongoing data protection battle between Facebook and Apple has put this level of security in the spotlight like never before.
WhatsApp was right in the thick of it, and the world’s leading messenger dismissed any criticism by pounding the end-to-end encryption point home. As if to be clear, the two messengers benefited the most from WhatsApp’s problems: Signal, which is end-to-end encrypted by default, and Telegram, which is not.
WhatsApp liked to mock Telegram’s problems in public and rightly pointed out that the Glib claims it made about security and privacy are not supported by its technical flaws. WhatsApp has been quieter on the signal front as its smaller, albeit rapidly growing, rival is the best secure messenger on the market today.
And while Signal is cross-platform, it works better on Android than iPhone because you can set it as your default system messenger, which means it handles both SMS and its own secure messages. Yes, you will miss out on the rich chat format with contacts who are not using Signal, but encourage them to install the app. Android Messages’ approach of backing up some of the messages for some of the people is not really an alternative.
Of course, with this update, Google is not targeting Signal or even WhatsApp, but Apple and its much-acclaimed iMessage platform. Comparing iMessage and Android Messages is difficult – one is an integrated, highly secure architecture, while the other is a layer of security added to a spider’s web messaging ecosystem.
Unique among the secure messengers, iMessage offers cross-device, fully synchronized access, a rolling cloud backup and an ever-growing integration into the phone’s operating system. There’s no Android-like option on iOS to switch out the default messenger, iMessage is one of Apple’s sticky defenses against users who switch to Android.
iMessage does all of this without compromising end-to-end encryption, as long as you turn off general iCloud backup on your phone. Otherwise, Apple will save a copy of your encryption key and access it, somewhat counterintuitively. But iMessage isn’t cross-platform, and that excludes it as your messaging address unless you’re using iOS and making a point of never communicating with someone who isn’t.
It’s great that Google finally took this step. It just isn’t enough to just solve the problem. As WhatsApp boss Will Cathcart puts it: âEnd-to-end encryption blocks technology companies from particularly sensitive information. Will we be able to have a private conversation or will there always be someone listening? âBut that has to be the standard for ALL messages, both to individuals and groups, not a selection.
So what should you do? My current advice on messaging, whether Android or iOS, is to use WhatsApp on a daily basis as almost everyone you want to message to has the app and Facebook’s privacy concerns have been exaggerated. But you should also use Signal to take advantage of further expansion. And if you’re using Android, you should use Signal as your default system messenger. When you do this, any messages you send to anyone with the app installed will automatically be sent through Signal.
In the meantime, Google needs to keep evolving Android Messages to keep up with the alternatives. That means group encryption, it means comprehensive access to multiple devices, as Signal and iMessage offer today and WhatsApp will soon introduce. And then it comes down to trust. Messaging isn’t just about content, it’s also about metadata. And adding more data to the Google mix doesn’t make sense.
Ultimately, the latest Android Messages update might seem like a step forward, but in reality it solves an issue that Android users just don’t have.