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Reviewing Super Secret Mobile Messaging Apps

So here we are… smack-dab in this post-snowden, post-wikileaks era, relatively fresh off the Vybz Kartel conviction and in a world where the rise and fall of the day’s celebrities are telegraphed, televised, devised and demised by Twitter and other social media. In this hyper-sensitive age of information, buttons and screens and the need to stay connected are the orders of the day… but this itch that needs to be scratched, like any positive thing in life, is haunted by the darkside. While billions all over the world whoosh and swish messages from one end of the world to the other using apps like WhatsApp on their Android, iOS and even Blackberry devices, others bolt and cower in fear at the very thought of the NSA (or some other real or imaginary element of Big Brother) snooping at their very sensitive, sometimes very private, sometimes very intimate, sometimes very… well you get the idea… messages. What then has been the result… you got it… technology finds a way… and gives rise to a generation of super-secret, James-Bond-worthy, anti-snooping messaging apps and services that have quickly found their followings and fans. Let’s take a look at a couple of the more recent apps, each with slightly different implementations toward the same objective. First up is TextSecure

textsecure-clipThe TextSecure concept is fairly simple, but definitely effective.  The approach it takes is to assume the role of your SMS app, meaning it handles any and all the incoming and outgoing text messages.  Now, that by itself isn’t really anything special… the magic starts when you link up with a friend who also has the app installed as their text messenger. The app is able to detect that your contact also has the app and establishes a secure encrypted connection between both devices and sends the message across this secure channel (via data if available, SMS otherwise).  What this means is that if any of the sent messages are intercepted in transmission, it will be totally unreadable by the snooper… even if that snooper is your service provider.  That sounds pretty good, but the more astute among you may ask, so what about the text messages actually sitting on the phone once received or sent?  Those must be wide open for snooping huh?  The answer… NOPE!  So apart from being a good looking SMS app and sending secure text messages, TextSecure also allows users to encrypt and lock access to text messages stored on the phone.  A user-configurable password is required to unlock the text messages for reading and a touch of a button re-locks it when you’re done.

So all-in-all, if you have a need to secure your text messages from prying eyes then TextSecure might actually be a pretty good option for you.  It’s not perfect, and basically the one shortcoming I found is that (at least for now) the app doesn’t support those Android quick response messages that you can fire off at those incoming calls.  I say if you’ve got trade secrets and proprietary super-secret information that needs protecting, then feel free to give it a shot.

Next up is everybody’s favourite private messenger… SnapChat.  Yup, you know, those guys that turned down like a Bajillion-dollar offer the other day.
snapchat-clipSo what is SnapChat?  Well, let me explain it in my own way.  If you know what WhatsApp is or (can’t believe I’m saying this) even BBM?  It’s kinda like that, but replace the typing with photos and doodling… oh and add the fact that all messages sent eventually evaporate based on the timing that you set.  It’s an app that targets persons who want to send messages, primarily visual, that are super-secret (and I assume potentially incriminating).  The way it operates is that two parties will need to have the app installed.  The sender first snaps a photo, adds the optional doodle and also sets how long the message should “live” before “evaporating”.  Once that timeout is reached the message is gone (presumably forever), so if you’re in a meeting or otherwise disposed and never got to it in time… yup, it’s still an irreversible POOF!  Maybe you can ask the person to take the exact photo again and doodle the exact message on top of it… fat chance.  It’s a well-designed app with one flaw I noticed up to when last I used it, even though the messages are transient which makes it kinda private… phones of today are actually shipping with simple built-in ways to do screenshots… and sharing snapshots is easier than it’s ever been, thus TOTALLY in my opinion, OBLITERATING the whole purpose of using this app.  I’m sure they’ll come up with a fix for that soon (right?  RIGHT???).

The third and last app, I was thoroughly impressed with, from it’s design to it’s concept and approach to the whole Mission Impossible message-sending debacle.  It’s name is Confideconfide-clip

Confide seems to take the concept of both of the previous apps with a focus on resolving the major flaws of both.  So what it does, is send secure messages between both parties that have the app installed.  How does this differ from SnapChat?  Well, with SnapChat, as we mentioned you can always do a screenshot of what’s on the screen using some simple keystrokes and then wah-lah, the message isn’t so temporary anymore… but with Confide, there’s none of that, because the only way to read the messages received is by running your fingers alongside the text on screen  and then the app “un-obscures” (reveals) just that small portion recently touched.  What that means is that you won’t be able to activate the keystrokes for taking the screenshot as your screen will already be engaged by the touching going on… and even IF you somehow got an app that took a screenshot with no touching or keystrokes required you still wouldn’t be able to capture the message, only small portions of it, that you would have to then manipulate to string the message back together and a manipulated image is a non-evidentiary image… and so, problem solved!

So what then is the conclusion of the whole matter?  It is that in this new and fast rising category of (what they’re starting to refer to as) “Ephemeral” messaging apps, we probably haven’t seen the ultimate app just quite yet, but in my opinion, even though the war is on for dominance, right now for me the King of the Hill is Confide.

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Omar Samuels has been immersed in the world of Information Technology for 15+ years consulting on projects and ventures throughout the region. He is an avid tech enthusiast who is making himself available to work on the next teleporter or replicator project, as long as there is sufficient funding and Chinese food.

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