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Just Encryption Part 2: Text Messages

Are you encrypting your texts? You should be — now more than ever.

Before the 2016 election, writing for TechCrunch, Steven Renderos and Mark Tseng Putterman observed that "for activists and people of color, strong encryption is essential."


Here in New Orleans, in the interim between the election and the inauguration, local firebrand Jules Bentley published a treatise on strategies for strengthening the resistance. In passing, he mentioned "using Signal for texting" as an easy starting place, even for people who don't think they're in a targeted group.

Bentley wasn't alone in recommending Signal for sending encrypted texts at that time. Trump's ascendancy led to a surge of downloads for the Signal app, leading Recode magazine to opine that "encrypted messaging is the new regular messaging."

That's where I got started, and you can too. Here's a quick guide.

Two big apps

The two most popular apps that support encrypted messaging are Signal and WhatsApp. Both are free, and both are available for iPhone and Android. (But if you're an iPhone user, see also the note below.) They use the same encryption protocols, but there are some important differences between the two.

Let's boil these differences down to their essence:

Signal is devoted explicitly to security. It's open source, which means every aspect of the source code can be audited by security experts. It generally gets rave reviews from that sector; Edward Snowden has endorsed it. You can send anyone a text with Signal, but it will only be received in encrypted form if the recipient also uses Signal. Otherwise it will be sent in the clear. Either way, they still get the message.

WhatsApp is a messaging app first and foremost,  with security added after the fact. It's hugely popular. It may not be in the top ten, but it's probably in the top twenty. The user base is over one billion. That means if you want to use WhatsApp, there's a good chance your intended contacts are already on there — and they'll need to be, because WhatsApp can only be used to message other WhatsApp users. Thus, you're assured your messages are secure.

But wait: your messages may be secure, but the rest of the program isn't, necessarily. According to LifeHacker, WhatsApp collects a lot of information about you, including "usage and log information, device information, contact information, cookies, status updates (like when you were last online), and your location if you choose to share it." Note also that WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, with which it shares data.

Special note for iPhone users 

I've got good news and bad news. The good news is that when you use the iPhone's default messaging app, Apple is encrypting your texts for you. The bad news is that only applies when you're messaging another iPhone user.

Have you ever noticed how some text exchanges have blue bubbles while others are green? Basically, blue means the other person is on iPhone and your messages are secure. Green means you're sending plain old text messages in the clear, with no encryption. In most cases that's because the party on the other end doesn't have an iPhone.

You can install an app like Signal but (more bad news) Apple won't allow you to set it as your default messaging app.

Part 2 of a continuing series on "Just Encryption." See also: Introduction and Web Basics.

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