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What is Secure? Analysis of Popular Messaging Apps

“In a world where privacy and security are increasingly under threat, particularly in countries swept up in a global wave of autocratization and erosion of rights, encrypted messaging apps are an increasingly popular—and necessary—way to share information, organize and engage with one another, and do business. But while the promise of secure messaging is private communications and user control over the spread of personal or group information, the reality is often more complicated, particularly in the age of surveillance capitalism. An overlapping, interconnected set of engineering, design, and system factors, coupled with varied user behaviors and shifting policy environments, have created conditions in which individuals may subvert their own interests or those of their communities while using encrypted messaging apps. From September 2022 through May 2023, we analyzed popular messaging apps–including Signal, WhatsApp, Telegram, Messages by Google, Apple Messages and Meta’s Messenger–across a range of dimensions, including technical security, user experience, how the apps engage with users and developers, and their policies, terms and conditions. We sought to understand how people form mental models of their own individual or group digital security and corresponding threats, ways in which the technical and design decisions that the developers of encrypted messaging apps make can leave users vulnerable, and potential solutions that encompass technical, design, and policy adjustments. To answer these questions, we adopted principles from frameworks such as Privacy by Design and Design from the Margins. We completed a technical review of selected apps; a detailed user experience and user interaction design analysis; and a comprehensive policy review. We interviewed a range of experts, and conducted field work with at-risk users including abortion rights activists in New Orleans, Louisiana and journalists in Delhi, India.”

The full 86-page report PDF is available for download here.

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