Amnesty International has released their new Message Privacy Ranking, and for some of the biggest names in Instant Messaging, it does not make for great reading.
The ranking assesses 11 of the most popular instant messaging services on their use of encryption, which encodes messages and so keeps its content safe from prying eyes. Most messaging services these days make a point of emphasizing their commitment to user privacy, so the findings of Amnesty are particularly interesting.
The human rights organization has set end-to-end encryption as the basic minimum that users should expect their messaging service to offer. That means all the communications is encrypted and only assessable to the sender and the recipient. They then looked at the level of encryption offered and whether it is offered by default.
Let’s start at the bottom of the ranking and it will come as no surprise that the worst performing messaging service is from China. Tencent, which has a huge market within the Communist state scored zero out of a possible 100; no surprise as everything you send on their services is monitored by the Chinese Communist Party.
Second-lowest on their ranking was Blackberry, once revered for its security but now very much a fading force, and more surprisingly Snapchat.
Snapchat has more than 100 million users every day and talks loud about its commitments to privacy. But it does not offer end-to-end encryption to users and offers poor communication with users about encryption and the potential danger users might find themselves in if they use Snapchat in countries which monitor such content.
With a primarily young market, the failings of Snapchat are perhaps the biggest surprise and concern of this report.
The other surprising low performer was Skype, which does offer encryption, but it is weak and not end-to-end encryption, which Amnesty claim is the minimum users should expect.
What all of these apps do offer is known as “Transport encryption” which is far less secure as communications are not protected when they pass through company servers.
Top of the Pile
Despite the huge amount of criticism Facebooks receives on the privacy front, it is their Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp which performed best. Neither is perfect, but both scored 73 out of 100 and were commended by Amnesty for their transparency and the steps they have taken to protect human rights.
The next best performing was Apple who offers end-to-end encryption on both their FaceTime and iMessage services, which can be used between different Apple devices. Amnesty’s criticism of them was a failure to communicate to users that SMS messages were less secure than iMessages and a lack of transparency about the nature of their encryption.
Amnesty’s motivation for this report is that many people in countries which violate human rights reply on secure messaging services to communicate with each other and the outside world. It is vital for them that such services are totally secure as their lives could literally depend on it.
As Amnesty themselves note, none of the services they looked at are perfect. The best way to ensure your communications is completely encrypted is to ensure you are connected to the internet via a VPN. This makes sure all your online traffic, including instant messaging, is encrypted and safe from prying eyes.
Used in conjunction with those best performing services in this report, users can be confident that their communications are secure, no matter where in the world they are.