tl;dr There are too many secure chat programs and not enough secure anything else, and we can’t persuade people to use even the secure chat programs, let alone the same programs.
Everyone use Signal, or just meet up face-to-face.
Instant-ish messaging via text and telephony.
The ephemeral nature of chats turns out to be potentially much more practically secure than email, at least if you do it right.
Skype, however, does not do it right; rather, it is an NSA honeypot, and not even a very usable one.
There are attempts to do it right below as regards confidentiality, but refer also of course to the problem of jurisdiction.
Trumping end to end encryption
Currently, the NSA can tap into a broad range of communications, but have no means to compel communications to be in a form they can monitor. This is likely to change; after all, they will need to be able to hunt down those involved in, or providing support to, terrorist groups like Black Lives Matter and Friends Of The Earth, not to mention the President’s extensive list of enemies. As such, it is quite likely that, at some point during Trump’s first year, end-to-end encrypted messaging systems will be required to provide real-time plaintext to the security services. (Things have already been moving slowly in this direction, and will only accelerate under a president who has expressed admiration for autocrats and a brutishly Hobbesian view of how power works.)
Similar laws are already in force in more established autocracies such as Russia and Turkey. The difference is that American companies, subject to American law, provide many of the communications systems used worldwide, such as Apple iMessage, WhatsApp and Signal. These are likely to be compelled to provide the US homeland-security authorities with the plaintext of all messages coming through them, in real time, and to make whatever changes are necessary to their architecture to achieve this.
With iMessage, this would be theoretically easy to do. iMessage messages are encrypted from end to end, so Apple have no means of reading them, but each message is encrypted several times with the public keys of each of the recipients’ devices (i.e., if you’re sending one to someone with an iPhone and an iPad, your iMessage client will encrypt it with the public keys of both of their devices). Once they are legally compelled to do so, Apple could just quietly add an extra key, whose private key is held by the NSA iMessage ingestion gateway. Given that the entire iMessage system is closed-source and completely under Apple’s control, Apple could push this to all users, without worrying about rogue clients that feed the NSA junk.
- General theory of Off-The-Record chat
Free, worldwide, encrypted voice calls for iPhone (Signal) and Android (redphone/textsecure) by “Open Whisper Systems”
Signal uses your existing number, doesn’t require a password, and leverages privacy-preserving contact discovery to immediately display which of your contacts are reachable with Signal. Under the hood, it uses ZRTP, a well-tested protocol for secure voice communication.
Signal was designed specifically for mobile devices, using a jitter buffer tuned to the characteristics of mobile networks, and using push notifications to preserve battery life while still remaining responsive. Signal is also Free and Open Source Software, allowing anyone to audit the code for correctness or help contribute improvements. The project even pays out a percentage of donated Bitcoin for every merged pull request.
Seems super cool in that it is open, friendly, widely used etc. Not as polished, reliable or easy as more mainstream clients.
The Signal algorithm is apparently used in iMessage and Whatsapp, although how can you tell in these secretive closed-source apps? Whatsapp, at least, breaks the security of the protocol in aid of convenience.
Mobile: Wickr is not open source but looks interesting because it has trendy cryptographers backing it.
is a P2P communications protocol used to send encrypted messages to another person or to many subscribers. It is decentralized and trustless, meaning that you need-not inherently trust any entities like root certificate authorities. It uses strong authentication which means that the sender of a message cannot be spoofed, and it aims to hide “non-content” data, like the sender and receiver of messages, from passive eavesdroppers like those running warrantless wiretapping programs.
Desktop/mobile: Cryptocat is an open implementation of OTR for text chat.
Desktop: tox is a chat protocol and implementation
Tox is a free-as-in-freedom, peer-to-peer, end-to-end encrypted, distributed, multimedia messenger. Using existing technologies such as dispersed networking and strong cryptography, Tox can provide a superior instant messaging experience than current market offerings. Files can be shared as fast as you and your partner’s Internet connection allows, audio calls are instantaneous, and there are no arbitrary limits to how many people you can have in a group conversation.
Favoured client seems to be qTox.
group communications are nice to have if you have more than one friend. Dissent is one fashionable open-source attempt to provide that with good academic credentials. No released products yet, though:
Dissent’s technical approach differs in two fundamental ways from the traditional relay-based approaches used by systems such as Tor:
- Dissent builds on dining cryptographers and verifiable shuffle algorithms to offer provable anonymity guarantees, even in the face of traffic analysis attacks, of the kinds likely to be feasible for authoritarian governments and their state-controlled ISPs…
- Dissent seeks to offer accountable anonymity, giving users strong guarantees of anonymity while also protecting online groups or forums from anonymous abuse such as spam, Sybil attacks, and sockpuppetry. Unlike other systems, Dissent can guarantee that each user of an online forum gets exactly one bandwidth share, one vote, or one pseudonym, which other users can block in the event of misbehavior
Dissent offers an anonymous communication substrate intended primarily for applications built on a broadcast communication model: for example, bulletin boards, wikis, auctions, or voting. Users of an online group obtain cryptographic guarantees of sender and receiver anonymity, message integrity, disruption resistance, proportionality, and location hiding.
Desktop: Jitsi is an open-source desktop skype-ish client.
Desktop: Hello is the new firefox one. How does that work now?
Mobile: blackphone is a whole secure mobile device.
Frequently Asked Questions
OStel is a public testbed of the Open Secure Telephony Network (OSTN) project, an effort with the goal of promoting the use of free, open protocols, standards and software, to power end-to-end secure voice communications on mobile devices, as well as with desktop computers. Both are concepts from The Guardian Project.
matrix is more of a messaging layer for the internet, at lower level than a chat solution per se. Specifically, it aims to
[provide] an open universal communication layer perfect for VR calling, messaging and collaboration, powering immersive experiences for conferencing, tourism, entertainment, telepresence, e-learning, etc. […]Matrix is that missing signalling layer for WebRTC. If you are building VoIP into your app, or want to expose your existing VoIP app to a wider audience, building on Matrix’s SDKs and bridges should be a no-brainer.