Google has launched its much-anticipated new messaging service for Android devices and it is fair to say it has not been well received.
Known as Chat, the new Google service is the company’s latest effort to rival Apple’s iMessage. But it is lacking one crucially important feature; end-to-end encryption.
All about Google Chat
Google has been trying to deliver a successful messaging app for a long time now and there have been a number of false starts and failed endeavours along the way. But after developing Chat for some time, hopes were high that Android users might finally have a service to rival iMessage.
Google Chat will be based on the RCS, or Rich Communication Services, which is a new standard for SMS texts. Many Android manufacturers and carriers have already begun supporting RCS, so it is perhaps not such a big surprise that Google has built Chat around it.
But because Chat is using RCS, it means that the messages will be sent using the mobile infrastructure of mobile phone carriers. These operators are much keener to be in compliance with the demands of local law enforcement bodies and therefore are not keen on the idea of end-to-end encryption.
But there are other reasons why Chat avoids encryption too. Firstly, there is Google’s thirst for user data. A number of services, such as Google Assistant, take user data to deliver more personalized services. Google Assistant is included inside the Chat service, so it needs to be able to see message content.
Data is also a great source of profit for Google as it is for the carriers who will handle the messages sent through Chat. They will much prefer Chat to iMessage because it offers them a new revenue stream.
iMessage and the privacy question
Most Carrier’s hate iMessage because the way it operates generates no revenue for them. If you send an iMessage between two Apple devices, they are encrypted and then sent over the internet. But if you send a message to a non-Apple device, iMessage will automatically convert it into an SMS and sent it like a regular text.
Apple has always been a keen advocate of user privacy and it is therefore highly unlikely that they will ever choose to support RCS Messaging.
So, the new Google Chat app looks like a great new tool for Google and the carriers who will handle the messages sent. Indeed, the only people who are losing out are the Android users themselves.
Because Google Chat does not include end-to-end encryption, its users can expect their levels of online privacy to be absolutely minimal. Not only will both Google and a user’s own carrier be able to access the content of a message and use it as they see fit, but so too will plenty of other people.
The new Chat app is a dream for hackers and cybercriminals of all kinds because, without encryption, they will have no trouble hacking into messages and intercepting content on a whim.
You only have to look at the popularity of services such as WhatsApp and Telegram, in addition to iMessage, to see that people are more and more aware of the importance of encryption and willing to go out of their way to find it.
Widespread condemnation of Chat
Google’s failure to include encryption in Chat should prove to be a death knell for the service before it has even begun. It has already overshadowed the launch as privacy campaigners have queued up to slam the lack of encryption in the service.
Even Amnesty International has gone out of their way to release a statement on the new Chat app, stating that it shows Google’s ‘utter contempt’ for their users and is ‘a gift’ to hackers and government spies.
They describe the lack of encryption as a ‘dangerous’ decision and a ‘shockingly retrograde step’ which leaves Google way behind their competitors. They also note that even Google’s last attempt at a messaging app, known as Allo, had the option for encryption built in.
Amnesty is, of course, absolutely right and are far from the only group to be expressing such options.
It is frankly difficult to see why anyone looking for an online messaging app would opt for Google’s new Chat app over the many superior options that are available on the market.
Firstly, most users already have a messaging service they are happy with, most of which already offer end-to-end encryption as standard. There is still no firm rollout schedule for Chat and, given the overwhelming level of criticism it has received, maybe it will never even see the light of day.
But, if it does, we would certainly urge any Android device users to look around for alternatives, or at the very least, ensure they have a VPN installed and running on their Android device to encrypt their messages for at least part of their journey between devices.