Encrypted messaging locks down your chats -- but only while they're traveling to the recipients.
As a group of alleged conspirators recently learned, encrypted messaging isn't a guarantee that your private conversations will stay between you and the recipient. The FBI arrested six men on Thursday for allegedlyplotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. How did the feds get the information they needed? They read the group's encrypted conversations.
To be clear, accessing the communications wasn't a highly technical effort. The FBI had a confidential informant who participated in the group message threads in which much of the conspiracy was laid out, according to a criminal complaint. That kept the FBI in the loop even when the group changed messaging apps to avoid detection.
Subscribe to the Mobile newsletter, receive notifications and see related stories on CNET.
"Because the group still included [the informant], the FBI has maintained the ability to consensually monitor the chat communications," FBI special agent Richard J. Trask II said in the complaint.
The incident underscores a basic fact about encrypted messaging apps, like Signal, Telegram and WhatsApp. While they all offer a layer of privacy, there are plenty of ways for someone to access your messages from these services.
That's good news and bad news. On the bright side, it means criminals plotting violence can't rely completely on encrypted messaging services to hide their plans from the police. While law enforcement has warned that encryption threatens to make their investigations into the worst criminals "go dark," this case is one example of how investigators can continue to read messages sent with encrypted services.
On the other hand, it means regular users who want to protect their data from hackers, creeps and foreign governments need to rethink what encrypted messaging really does for them. It isn't a magic wand. Here's what you should know about what encryption does -- and doesn't do -- to protect your privacy.
It's OK, most people don't have a handle on just what encrypted messaging apps like Signal, Telegram and Facebook-owned WhatsApp do. They look and act like regular text messaging tools. But behind the scenes, the services scramble up your messages as they travel across cellular communications systems and the internet to get to the intended recipient's phone.
That means no one involved in sending the message -- including the encrypted messaging service -- can read your messages. Regular SMS messaging is sent in plaintext and doesn't have this layer of protection, so your SMS messages are vulnerable to interception at multiple points as they travel from your phone to the recipient's device.
If you use an iPhone, the data on your phone is encrypted when the device is locked. On Android phones, users have to enable disk encryption themselves. Device encryption will protect your messages as long as the phone is locked.
Apple describes this form of encryption as essential to users' privacy. For one thing, it protects all the personal data on your phone if it gets stolen. Think private messages and photos, as well as access to your email account and financial information.
Like encrypted messaging, device encryption has been a sore subject with law enforcement. The FBI tried to get a court order in 2016 to force Apple to help it access encrypted messages on an iPhone used by an extremist shooter. After Apple refused, the agency was eventually able to access the data on the phone with another technique.
As the Michigan case shows, anyone you send a message can share it with a wider circle of people, regardless of whether it's sent on an encrypted service. The same goes for anyone who has the ability to unlock your phone, which disables device encryption. If you don't lock your device at all, anyone who gets your phone can access your messages.
Then there's hacking, which is used by law enforcement, as well as criminals and foreign governments, to target someone's phone with malicious software. Once the device is compromised, the malware can read messages on the device just like someone looking over your shoulder to watch you type. These tools are sophisticated, can be very expensive, and require someone to target you specifically.
Another form of malware that can get your communications is called stalkerware. That's phone monitoring software that many people admit to using to spy on their partners or exes, and it usually requires the person to have access to your phone. There are steps you can take if you're worried your device has stalkerware.
Finally, there are your backups. Data on your cloud accounts might not be encrypted, and anyone who has the password could access your backed-up messages there. Some stalkerware works by accessing your phone's cloud backup. That's a great argument for using a unique, hard-to-guess password to protect your cloud accounts, and using a password manager.
Now playing: Watch this: Are passwords dead? Let's talk about the future of authentication
- WhatsApp boosts end-to-end encryption - BusinessTech - September 17th, 2021
- WhatsApp to offer encryption on cloud backups: Heres all you need to know - India Today - September 17th, 2021
- London's Top Cop Says 'Big Tech,' Encryption Are Letting The Terrorists Win - Techdirt - September 17th, 2021
- Zoom unveils new security features including end-to-end encryption for Zoom Phone, verified identities and... - ZDNet - September 15th, 2021
- Insights on the Hardware Encryption Global Market to 2026 - by Algorithm & Standard, Architecture, Product, Application and Region - PRNewswire - September 15th, 2021
- Light Start: WhatsApp rolls out backup encryption, LG is more attractive, Google goes dark and iPhones only laak gud vaabs Stuff - Stuff Magazines - September 15th, 2021
- Revenant REvil. WhatsApp offers encryption. Hortum spyware in Turkey. Update on the UN data breach. Healthcare breaches disclosed. - The CyberWire - September 15th, 2021
- How a glitch in the Matrix led to apps potentially exposing encrypted chats - The Register - September 15th, 2021
- Secure cloud storage: which are the most secure providers? - ITProPortal - September 15th, 2021
- WhatsApp is finally allowing users to encrypt chat backups uploaded to iCloud and Google Drive - Buzz.ie - September 15th, 2021
- WhatsApp is adding encrypted backups - The Verge - September 11th, 2021
- What Is Fully Homomorphic Encryption (FHE)? - CIO Insight - September 11th, 2021
- WhatsApp end-to-end encrypted messages arent that private after all - Ars Technica - September 11th, 2021
- UK government backs Apple, and wants to scan encrypted messages for CSAM - 9to5Mac - September 11th, 2021
- VPN and Email Encryption Provider, WiTopia, Inc., Is Now Raising Capital Via StartEngine - PRNewswire - September 11th, 2021
- Future in the cloud for encryption - Capacity Media - September 8th, 2021
- WhatsApps Claims Of End-To-End Encryption Might Be Entirely True - Ubergizmo - September 8th, 2021
- Debunking Wi-Fi Security Myths: Wi-Fi Encryption Is Weak - TechSpective - September 8th, 2021
- WhatsApp Flaw Casts Doubt on End-to-End Encryption - Security Boulevard - September 8th, 2021
- Bluefin Receives U.S. Patent on Systems for Vaultless Tokenization and Encryption - WFMZ Allentown - September 8th, 2021
- Priti Patel backs ad campaign that criticises Facebook's stance on end-to-end encryption - Graham Cluley Security News - September 8th, 2021
- EXCLUSIVE: What's in the new zero-trust strategy - Politico - September 8th, 2021
- 3 ways to protect yourself from cyberattacks in the midst of an IT security skill shortage - Help Net Security - September 8th, 2021
- Apple Has Betrayed Its Privacy Legacy and Will Undermine End-to-end Encryption Everywhere - Privacy News Online - September 8th, 2021
- IBM's first 7nm Power10 chip arrives in E1080 server system with a wealth of shiny features - The Register - September 8th, 2021
- The adoption of multi-cloud drives the need for better data protection and management of encryption keys an... - Security Boulevard - August 26th, 2021
- Cryptomator Vs. BoxCryptor: Which One Is The Best Encryption Software? - Analytics Insight - August 26th, 2021
- Why you should encrypt your data on your computer and how to do it - The Star Online - August 26th, 2021
- Video end-to-end encryption on Ring to be available worldwide - ITP.net - August 26th, 2021
- What is a Vocoder? How an audio encryption device used in WW2 became the sound of electro and modern pop - Mixdown - August 26th, 2021
- Privacera partners with StreamSets to strengthen data security for ETL processing in the cloud - Help Net Security - August 26th, 2021
- R400m cocaine-in-a-boat accused used encryption app to communicate - TimesLIVE - August 26th, 2021
- Evervaults encryption as a service is now open access - TechCrunch - August 24th, 2021
- How to Encrypt Your Own Windows and Mac Devices (and Why You Need To) - Lifehacker - August 24th, 2021
- Why encryption is the key to digital fitness, according to Thales - iTnews - August 24th, 2021
- How to check each of your WhatsApp chats are ACTUALLY private right now and not being intercepted by h... - The Sun - August 24th, 2021
- WebCam: How Australia paved the way for Apple's encryption backflip - Crikey - August 24th, 2021
- Staggering 400% rise in child sexual abuse images detected by Facebook as fears over encryption plans g... - The Sun - August 24th, 2021
- Hardware-based Full Disk Encryption Market 2021 and Analysis to 2027 Micron Technology Inc, Seagate Technology PLC, Toshiba, Intel - The Market... - August 24th, 2021
- WhatsApp could soon have an iPad app for the first time - Engadget - August 24th, 2021
- Facebook is bringing end-to-end encryption to Messenger calls and Instagram DMs - TechCrunch - August 14th, 2021
- Apple opens the encryption Pandora's box - Axios - August 14th, 2021
- How to encrypt your computer (and why you should) - Mashable - August 14th, 2021
- Protects User Privacy With Encryption and Authentication - Security Magazine - August 14th, 2021
- An Overview of Blockchain in Supply Chain: Whats the Link? - JD Supra - August 14th, 2021
- Facebook introduces end-to-end encryption for its voice & video call features - Techstory - August 14th, 2021
- Hardware Encryption Devices Market Research Report 2021 Elaborate Analysis With Growth Forecast To 2027 Intel, Toshiba, Micron Technology Inc,... - August 14th, 2021
- If You Build It, They Will Come: Apple Has Opened the Backdoor to Increased Surveillance and Censorship Around the World - EFF - August 14th, 2021
- Encryption Software Market Report 2021-26: Size, Growth, Size, Share and Forecast IMARC Group - The Market Writeuo - The Market Writeuo - August 14th, 2021
- AES Encryption Software Market Growth in the Forecast Period of 2021 to 2026 With Top Companies: , Dell, Eset, Gemalto, IBM, Mcafee - The Market... - August 14th, 2021
- Regulated encryption isnt possible heres what is - POLITICO Europe - August 3rd, 2021
- Work from home and cloud are prompting hard looks at security - GCN.com - August 3rd, 2021
- Atakama and Spirion to announce their strategic partnership at Black Hat 2021 - PRNewswire - August 3rd, 2021
- Spirion and Atakama Join Forces at Black Hat 2021 Conference - MarTech Series - August 3rd, 2021
- Looking for ways to password protect a file or folder on Windows 11? Here's how you can do it - India Today - August 3rd, 2021
- XSOC CORP's SOCKET Receives UL- 2900 Certification for Securing Encrypted Workflows of Today's Enterprise and Industrial Connected Devices - Business... - August 3rd, 2021
- Apple @ Work: FileVault 2 is so good, theres no reason for IT departments not to use it - 9to5Mac - August 3rd, 2021
- The Future of Industrial Security - Security Today - August 3rd, 2021
- Global Encryption Software System Market Size And Forecast to 2021 2027 analysis with key players : IBM, Microsoft, Sophos ltd, Gemalto, Net App Inc,... - August 3rd, 2021
- Cloud Encryption Software Market Size 2021 Industry Demand, Share, Global Trend, Industry News, Business Growth, Top Key Players Update, Business... - August 3rd, 2021
- Global E-mail Encryption Market Dynamics Analysis, Production, Supply and Demand, Covered in the Latest Research 2021-2026 - Digital Journal - August 3rd, 2021
- Insights on the Optical Encryption Global Market to 2027 - Featuring Arista Networks, Broadcom and CenturyLink Among Others - ResearchAndMarkets.com -... - July 8th, 2021
- Jupiter Project Presents 'Metis Messenger', the Decentralized Chat Application That Syncs Across All Platforms - GlobeNewswire - July 8th, 2021
- If full encryption of police radios necessary? Berkeley may allow public to hear one of their channels - The Daily Post - July 2nd, 2021
- Leveraging Encryption Keys to Better Secure the Federal Cloud - Nextgov - July 2nd, 2021
- Benefits of Adopting Data Encryption in Businesses - CIOReview - July 2nd, 2021
- Encryption can be lucrative, but with environmental costs - Floridanewstimes.com - July 2nd, 2021
- UK Government has suggested messaging apps to avoid using end-to-end encryption on the accounts of children because that can be harmful to them -... - July 2nd, 2021
- Diavol ransomware linked to Trickbot botnet - IT PRO - July 2nd, 2021
- Got data? The biggest-ever portable encrypted SSD just came out - Cult of Mac - July 2nd, 2021
- Application-Level Encryption Market is expected to expand at a CAGR of 25% from 2020 to 2030 KSU | The Sentinel Newspaper - KSU | The Sentinel... - July 2nd, 2021
- Encryption Key Management Market to Eyewitness Massive Growth by 2028: Ciphercloud, Gemalto, Google The Manomet Current - The Manomet Current - July 2nd, 2021
- Data storage: the importance of protecting the device and not just the network - IT-Online - July 2nd, 2021
- Global E-mail Encryption Market 2021 Demands To Sustain in Future Industry Size, Growth, Revenue, Global Statistics and Forecast to 2030 The Manomet... - July 2nd, 2021
- Hardware Encryption Market 2021 Industry Analysis by Manufacturers, End-User, Type, Application, Regions and Forecast to 2027 The Manomet Current -... - July 2nd, 2021
- Former Anonymous and Lulzsec hacker discusses his criminal past and gives his top tips for avoiding ransomware - Texasnewstoday.com - July 2nd, 2021
- Why Inspecting Encrypted Traffic Is A Must - Security Boulevard - June 25th, 2021
- Researchers: 2G Connection Encryption Deliberately Weakened To Comply With Cryptowar Export Restrictions - Techdirt - June 25th, 2021
- The Ultimate Guide to Key Management Systems - Hashed Out by The SSL Store - Hashed Out by The SSL Store - June 25th, 2021
- Will regulation adapt to encryption, or will encryption adapt to regulation?Expert answers - QNT - June 25th, 2021