How (and Why) to Encrypt Your Text Messages

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With the NSA peering into everyone’s pockets without permission, and nosy siblings snooping through your message history while you’re away, there has never been a better time to start encrypting your text messages than there is today.

As we’ll explain in this article, encrypted texting isn’t always necessary, but it can still be a welcome safeguard for whenever you, your family, or business partners need to communicate sensitive information from one side of the globe to the other.

Why Should I Encrypt?

“But what if I have nothing to hide?” is a common response you might get from some people when discussing the news of the NSA spying programs.

“Why should I encrypt my texts” is another that usually follows closely behind, and my answer is almost always the same: according to a cache of PowerPoint slides released by one Edward Snowden, it seems the NSA has been actively hunting down encryption efforts for years, and exterminating any cryptography which could pose a threat to its ability to read our texts, track our calls, and rifle through our private emails.

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In the same set of slides, the world also learned that the only reason encryption is breakable right now is because such a small percentage of the population currently employ any sort of extra layer of security to protect their communications.

The idea behind using these apps or services is that as more people begin encrypting their messages, we can not only make the job of the NSA a bit more difficult, we can also be sure that no other third-party is able to crack the code of private conversations. Text encryption is perfect for high-level discussion of enterprise products coming to market, exchanging files containing private financial data, or sending personal family information you wouldn’t want getting out in the world. Not only that, but it also carries the unique benefit of ensuring none of the messages you send or receive will be used for advertising or marketing purposes, like you might find in competing products from WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger.

So, with so many varied benefits to encrypting texts, maybe the question shouldn’t be “why should I encrypt my texts,” but “why wouldn’t I?”

iMessage

For years, Apple has maintained the gold standard in industry-wide encryption through its iMessage service, which has throughout its history continued to act as a thorn in the side of law enforcement officials and rogue government agencies alike.

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The details of how iMessage’s unique encryption algorithm actually works are a bit too confusing and convoluted to explain in full here, however if you’re interested you can read through the technical descriptions on page 35 of the company’s own security brief from earlier this year.

Even without trawling through the details of that PDF, the proof of Apple’s privacy pedigree is in the pudding. Apple was one of the six major tech firms that wrote a stern letter to the United States House of Representatives condemning the actions of the NSA after the Snowden leaks first hit the wires, and the Cupertino-based smartphone maker has since continued to stand up for the privacy rights of its individual users when threatened with legal action to unlock the iPhones of suspected criminals.

With all that in mind, it’s clear the company is dedicated to keeping people’s text messages where they belong: in their own possession, free from the prying eyes of anyone you didn’t already invite to the party.

Signal

Unfortunately, iMessage only works for iOS users. If you’re on Android–or you’re an iOS user communicating with an Android user–you’ll want the Signal app from OpenWhisper systems. With it, you can encrypt both your calls and your SMS messages from one app, without worrying about a complicated setup process, using separate logins, or even removing your profile from your phone first.

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Signal’s protective protocol works by transforming what would normally travel as a normal SMS/MMS packet into raw data, and then running that altered binary through OpenWhisper’s open source encryption algorithm to ensure your communications are locked down as tight as possible.

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As long as you and your recipients are both using Signal, your message will be encrypted. Signal will also work with a simple iPhone-to-iPhone transaction, so if you prefer the Signal UI over iMessage for any reason, it’s still a viable and secure alternative.

You can download Signal from Google Play for free here, or from the iTunes App Store here.

Knox 

Lastly, if you’re one of the millions who ditched your iPhone for a Samsung Galaxy in the past few years, you’ll have access to the new Knox messaging platform available on compatible Android devices.

What makes Knox different from software-side encryption solutions like Signal or iMessage is unlike either of those messengers, Knox texting is protected by a physical cryptography chip installed on the phone itself. By running the Knox platform inside its own, protected hardware sandbox, you can be certain that the calls, emails, or messages coming in or out of the phone are completely separated from any identifying information tied to the phone itself.

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One limitation of Knox is that it works like iMessage, in that you will only be fully encrypted when communicating with another Knox device which is already running the same firmware as you. Even so, if the privacy-conscious OS has passed the vetting process to be good enough for the US Department of Defense, you can be sure it’s good enough for you and your friends too.

All the most recent iterations of both Galaxy S and Galaxy Note phones are Knox-ready right out of the box, while the full list of compatible phones and phablets can be found here.


In an era of eavesdropping smartphones, public Facebook profiles, and massive international spying operations run amok, it could feel like the days of personal privacy could be coming to an end. But there’s still a way to fight back, and the best place to start is by locking up all your communications behind a safe, secure, and secretive wall of encrypted texting apps.

Image Credits: Samsung, OpenWhisper 1, 2, iTunes, Google Play

Chris Stobing is a writer and blogger from the heart of Silicon Valley. Raised around tech from birth, he's had an interest in PC hardware and networking technology for years, and has come to How-To Geek to contribute his knowledge on both. You can follow him on Twitter here.

  • Published 08/25/15
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