The importance of mobile app security is often overlooked. Most people with a smartphone will use some form of messaging app, such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. By offering fast and easy ways to communicate with others, it makes sense that messaging apps have become widespread given their usefulness.

However, any messaging app is also at risk from an outside attack. Without effective encryption features, personal data that has been stored, transferred, and shared on mobile devices could very well be stolen from any number of individuals and organizations.

This fall, Amnesty International discovered that some of the most popular mobile apps used today could be a lot less secure than you might think. Instant messaging apps come with various levels of security and encryption, with some security being far more advanced than others.

This graphic shows the most-used mobile apps globally, and categorizes them by encryption level.

 

Mobile messaging apps encryption level

 

Why is Encryption Important in Messaging Apps?

Messaging apps see a lot of data transferring between users, not to mention they have access to any stored data from messages and users. For example, an app could easily have personal information like an address, email, online banking details, or contact numbers.

Now consider the fact that without adequate encryption, any number of third party organization or individual (rackets, etc.) could gain access to this data. They could use it maliciously or even send viruses to the device itself.

Simply put, there is no shortage of potential security breaches and risks of private information without encryption software.

The question is: are you aware of the level of encryption in your favorite messaging app? You might be surprised by what you find out. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular apps in 2016, and see what level of encryption they offer.

 

WhatsApp

The most popular messaging app in the world, with over 1 billion users, WhatsApp also happens to offer some of the highest security around, and is the most transparent. They recently rolled out end-to-end encryption this year, ensuring all data is protected even in the event of a security breach. WhatsApp is the only messenger that explicitly warns users when end-to-end encryption is not applied to a certain chat. It makes sure users are aware of their level of security in each individual conversation.

 

Facebook Messenger

What is strange about Facebook Messenger is that while it does have end-to-end encryption, it isn’t the default setting for the app. This is in contrast to WhatsApp, which is also owned by Facebook. So, while you can certainly reap the benefits of high level security, it won’t actually be in use unless you chance the setting yourself. They also do not inform users when they are using weaker encryption despite it being available.

 

Apple’s iMessage and FaceTime

Found on Apple devices including iPhones and iPads, Apple iMessage and FaceTime also both have end-to-end encryption as their default setting.

Users can expect the same high level security as WhatsApp, although this is only between Apple devices – sending a message to a non-iPhone user doesn’t have the same encryption. Apple has also said that it will not create back-doors to encryption.

 

Skype

Skype actually allows for voice and video chat as well as instant messaging, making it one of the most popular apps today. However, it doesn’t offer strong encryption: it is using one of the weakest forms of encryption available. Skype has 300 million active users, and has been a major target of government surveillance globally.

 

Snapchat

Another massively popular app, Snapchat has more than 100 million daily users, but they are seriously lacking in security. While Snapchat has a strong privacy policy, it needs to do more to increase its security level. There is no end-to-end encryption present in this app, and the fact that the ‘disappearing’ messages could still be hacked, means that users aren’t entirely aware of the risk present.

 

How to Better Protect Your Device

So, what can be done to ensure better security for your smartphone when using potentially dangerous apps?

 

VPN

One great way to add another level of mobile security and privacy is with a VPN. A virtual private network (VPN) offers high levels of security by encrypting data present on networks that aren’t secure. This essentially means that no person or organization would be able to view or gain access to any of the data from your mobile, such as those used in messaging apps.

VPNs for mobile devices are becoming more widespread as people become more concerned with digital privacy. However, this unfortunately means that some low-quality VPN companies have emerged claiming to offer high levels of encryption, when they aren’t actually secure or reliable.

ExpressVPN is an example of a high-quality VPN network that is worth investing. They offer support for numerous devices (including smartphones), allowing you to encrypt and protect all of your digital information.

Similarly, NordVPN provides excellent encryption, claiming to offer military-grade protection for data. All activity is completely anonymous when using the internet, and it can be used on mobile devices to offer high-level encryption when using messaging apps.

Check out this great list of VPNs that will protect your mobile device.

 

Antivirus Software

Most people use some form of antivirus software with their computers, but nowhere near as many do so with their mobile device. This could be down to the fact that most smartphone users aren’t fully aware of the risks they face from most apps, including instant messengers they regularly use.

There are many types of antivirus software available for Android and Apple smartphones, all of which offer some level of encryption. While you may have to pay a premium fee for such a service rather than rely on a free app, they offer additional security beyond encryption such as malware protection and firewall services.

Dilip Prashad
Dilip is a technology journalist and blogger, with an intuitive understanding of what makes a great piece of consumer software. He may speak tech as a first language, but he’s also an expert at breaking down even the most complex concepts in a way that anyone can understand.
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