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Google Allo a better keeper of secrets than Telegram, WhatsApp?

Google Allo a better keeper of secrets than Telegram, Whatsapp?



Sidhartha Shukla
moneycontrol.com


Say hello to Google’s new messaging app ‘Allo’, rolled out on September 21. The app has been touted by the tech giant as a progressive step for privacy.


Google has released Allo to go head-to-head with messaging veterans like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.


With the backing of artificial intelligence, Allo’s chatbot, Google Assistant offers its users brilliant web search facility and smart intuitive replies but it lacks the document sharing options which WhatsApp and Telegram provide.


But the feature that has received everyone’s praise and scrutiny is the ‘end-to-end encryption’ that Allo provides.


Allo does not have a default end-to-end encryption like WhatsApp, but rather like Google Chrome, it provides an ‘incognito’ mode to activate E2E encryption.

What is end-to-end encryption?
A mode of communication where only the communicating users i.e. the sender and receiver can read the messages – whether text, image, voice or video.

The Google app’s incognito mode of chat is exactly similar to the ‘secret chat’ feature provided by non-profit messaging app Telegram.


Allo gives discreet notifications and also has a self-destruct timer, which will be loved by privacy afficianados who want to keep their conversations a secret.


But there is one major drawback with Allo’s incognito mode: it allows both the sender and receiver to take a screenshot of the chat, unlike Telegram, where the app completely prohibits taking screenshots during a secret chat.



This flaw defeats the purpose of E2E encryption as the conversation does not remain a secret anymore and can be shared or misused by either of the communicators.


A minor flaw in E2EE not the only concern


Former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, CIA employee and probably the most famous whistleblower in history, Edward Snowden has asked people to stay wary of Allo’s privacy promises.


In a series of tweets he criticized the app and advised users to avoid it.

What is #Allo ? A Google app that records every message you ever send and makes it available to police upon request. https://t.co/EdPRC0G7Py


— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) September 21, 2016

Free for download today: Google Mail, Google Maps, and Google Surveillance. That’s #Allo . Don’t use Allo. https://t.co/EdPRC0G7Py


— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) September 21, 2016

Critics have pointed out that the smart reply feature — which becomes more efficient at predicting replies over time — works on the back of data collection and then lets the AI analyze and guess a user’s reply.

This added efficiency can cost consumers their privacy.

As reported by The Verge, Google had earlier announced that it will store chats only transiently and not indefinitely but now it says that all non-incognito messages on Allo will be stored by default until the user actively deletes them.

These messages, though encrypted between a device and Google’s server are still vulnerable to be accessed by government agencies as they can be cracked with the help of Google’s algorithms.

Allo, Telegram, WhatsApp – Where is the privacy?

After severely panning Allo, Edward Snowden said further that Telegram as a messaging service is “less safe than WhatsApp.” This sparked a twitter spat between the NSA whistleblower and Telegram’s founder Pavel Durov.

@Snowden Did you take into account that the majority of users of WA store their entire chat histories not encrypted on Google Drive/iCloud?


— Pavel Durov (@durov) September 21, 2016

@Snowden Even if you turn these backups off, your contacts will still backup their chats with you. This also means 0 security in WA groups.


— Pavel Durov (@durov) September 21, 2016

@durov Your work is admirable, but respectfully, I believe it more helpful to respond to criticism through patch notes rather than Twitter.


— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) September 21, 2016

@Snowden And real e2e for those who don’t. While Whatsapp can switch off their “e2e” remotely from their server for any user at any time.


— Pavel Durov (@durov) September 21, 2016

Verdict

The incognito mode of Allo has a serious flaw, which is easily mendable, but at the moment does not fulfill the purpose of a secret chat.

Whereas, WhatsApp has been scrutinized many times in the past for compromising user data, most recently its decision to share data with parent Facebook irked many.

The ‘secret chat’ option provided by the underdog Telegram is by far the best, as it practically leaves no chance for a conversation to be shared.

Messages cannot be forwarded from secret chats and if the sender/receiver deletes a message on his/her side of the conversation, the app on the other side of the secret chat will be ordered to delete it as well.

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