Category Archives: Google

Current distribution of WhatsApp alternatives [Update]

Android_robotMany people are discussing alternatives to WhatsApp right now. Here I just track how many installations the currently discussed, crypto-enabled alternatives have according to the app store.

WhatsApp was already bad before Facebook acquired it. But at least now people woke up and are considering secure alternatives. Yes, this move could have come earlier, but I do welcome the new opportunity: its the first time wide spread encryption actually has a chance in the consumer market. So for most of the people out there the question is more “which alternative should I use” instead of “should I use one”. Right now I do not have the faintest idea which alternative with crypto support will make the break through – but you could say I am well prepare.

Screenshot installed instant messengers
Screenshot installed instant messengers

Well – that’s obviously not a long term solution. Thus, to shed some light on the various alternatives and how they stand right now, here is a quick statistical overview:

Secure Instant Messengers, state updated 2014-03-11
Name WebPage/GooglePlay installed devices Ratings Google +1
ChatSecure Website / Google Play 100 000 – 500 000 1 626 2 620
Kontalk Website / Google Play 10 000 – 50 000 237 265
surespot Website / Google Play 50 000 – 100 000 531 632
Telegram Website / Google Play 10 000 000 – 50 000 000 273 089 97 641
Threema Website / Google Play 500 000 – 1 000 000 9 368 12 594
TextSecure Website / Google Play 100 000 – 500 000 2 478 2 589

The statistics are taken from Google’s Android Play Store. I would love to include iTunes statistics, but it seems they are not provided via the web page. If you know how to gather them please drop me a note and I’ll include them here.

These numbers just help to show how fat an application is spread – it does not say anything about the quality. For example Threema is not Open Source and thus not a real alternative. So, if you want to know more details about the various options, please read appropriate reviews like the one from MissingM.

Android 4.4 now *can* sync multiple calendars via ActiveSync

Android_robotWith the release of Android 4.4 called KitKat Google made some interesting changes to their ActiveSync implementation: the code is now set up to sync more than one calender, and the first KitKat user already confirmed that new feature.

In February I described in a blogpost why Android cannot sync multiple calendars via ActiveSync. The problem was that Google did not implement the necessary parts of the ActiveSync specification in Android.

However, that seems to have changed: if you look at the current ActiveSync implementation of Android 4.4 KitKat, the source code (tag 4.4rc1) does list support for multiple calendars – and also for multiple address books:

        MAILBOX_TYPE_MAP.put(Eas.MAILBOX_TYPE_USER_CALENDAR, Mailbox.TYPE_CALENDAR);
        MAILBOX_TYPE_MAP.put(Eas.MAILBOX_TYPE_USER_CONTACTS, Mailbox.TYPE_CONTACTS);

I had no chance yet to test that on my own, but there are reports that it is indeed working:

Today i flashed a Android 4.4 Rom on my smartphone. After adding the Exchange Profile all my Calendars are there [...]
I’ve uploaded a screenshot here:

http://postimg.org/image/5d4u364ub/

Looks like Google actually listened to…erm, corporate users? At least to someone, though ;)

But: Since I have no first-hand-experience in this regard I would like to ask all of my nine readers out there if anyone has a stock KitKat running and if the could check this feature. Please test this and leave a report about your experiences in the comments. I will include it in the article.

By the way, the above mentioned source code snippet also tells quite exactly which other ActiveSync functions are not yet supported in Android:

        //MAILBOX_TYPE_MAP.put(Eas.MAILBOX_TYPE_TASKS,  Mailbox.TYPE_TASKS);
        //MAILBOX_TYPE_MAP.put(Eas.MAILBOX_TYPE_NOTES, Mailbox.TYPE_NONE);
        //MAILBOX_TYPE_MAP.put(Eas.MAILBOX_TYPE_JOURNAL, Mailbox.TYPE_NONE);
        //MAILBOX_TYPE_MAP.put(Eas.MAILBOX_TYPE_USER_TASKS, Mailbox.TYPE_TASKS);
        //MAILBOX_TYPE_MAP.put(Eas.MAILBOX_TYPE_USER_JOURNAL, Mailbox.TYPE_NONE);
        //MAILBOX_TYPE_MAP.put(Eas.MAILBOX_TYPE_USER_NOTES, Mailbox.TYPE_NONE);
        //MAILBOX_TYPE_MAP.put(Eas.MAILBOX_TYPE_UNKNOWN, Mailbox.TYPE_NONE);
        //MAILBOX_TYPE_MAP.put(MAILBOX_TYPE_RECIPIENT_INFORMATION_CACHE, Mailbox.TYPE_NONE);

I guess syncing tasks could come in handy in corporate environments. Combined with support for multiple task folders you could even design your own Kanban “board” that way.

Nevertheless I’d like to add that ActiveSync is no big deal for me anymore because I am very happy with a – albeit 3rd party and not yet Open Source – CalDav implementation, which can even sync multiple task folders.

Thoughts on crypted communication

network-63770_150Due to the recently published information about mass surveillance on a yet not known level right now the question remains how to encrypt communication. I had some thoughts regarding that topic involving a GPG like web of trust combined with user friendliness which I’d like to share here.

Given everything which was published so far, un-encrypted communication is not save at all. The same is unfortunately true for encryption methods which rely on encryption provided by the servers of some organization. If there is a centralized organization storing the keys for you, or just providing you with the encryption technology, you are screwed, because the intelligence agencies will force them to cooperate. For that reason, the encryption must take place on the end users system already (and the software must be Open Source).

However, if you have end-user encryption, you have the problem of the key exchange – if two people want to communicate securely, they need to exchange the keys or at least securely verify that a public key indeed belongs to their private key. That only works if they meet in person – or if there is a web of trust.

A common example of such a web of trust is the GPG web of trust: people who have properly verified that person A belongs to key M sign this key. If person B trusts person A, it can just use key M since it is already verified by person A. However, in case of GPG the web of trust never reached mainstream. It is mainly used by technical minded people. Most users never got used to it.

So, from what I can tell the only chance to establish a web of trust is to hide the technical details as much as possible from the users. The same is true for the actual key exchange – it needs to be as simple as possible so that each normal user can use it.

Given this background I would suggest the following solution at least for mobile phones. You download the app, and it asks the user for a password. In the background, a key pair is generated and secured with the password, and all data stored on the device are encrypted using the public key. If user A meets user B all they need to do is pressing a button in the app, and a QR code is shown. The other user scans that QR code, and its done. The user shows up in the contact list, and they can chat. In the background, the app extracts the key ID and fingerprint from the QR code, downloads the public key, signs it and uploads the signature automatically.

The biggest problem comes up when user C comes into play, wants to communicate with user A, but they both have no common connection in their web of trust. They would have to meet – or use some other way of exchanging the data securely. A simple way would still be to talk on the phone, but that never worked for GPG. So some kind of web service to host their QR code for a short time only would probably a solution, although it would be pretty risky.

To lower the danger of a man in the middle attack in the above given web example the key servers must only accept one key pair for each identity, which is different to the way GPG works. That would in fact mean that you can have each login only once – if you loose your key, your are screwed.

One question though remains: how many steps in the web of trust are still trustworthy? I guess that could be left as a configuration option if, and only if, a user wants to modify that.

To summarize: I guess that the current cryptography technologies we have could really help to establish secure communication. But to really bring that communication to the masses we need easy-to-use (read: your grandma!) applications doing everything in the background.

Google continues CalDav support for everyone, now also adds CardDav

Android_robotYesterday Google announced that it will not restrict the CalDav access to their calendars to registered partners only, but that they will continue to provide it for everyone. Additionally, Google now offers CardDav support.

A couple of weeks ago Google announced that they would restrict CalDav access to their calendars to registered developers only. That resulted in a huge uproar among developers, users and open standards advocates and made many people wondering if Google will become a closed standards/software company in the future.

However, the pressure (and most likely the bad press and reputation) Google got worked, and they announced that the CalDav API will be continued as an API open for everyone:

In response to those requests, we are keeping the CalDAV API public.

And it becomes even better: CardDav support is added as well, meaning the address data can be accessed via open protocols as well:

And in the spirit of openness, today we’re also making CardDAV – an open standard for accessing contact information across the web – available to everyone for the first time.

This way CalDav and CardDav have an even better chance to become THE royalty free and open alternative to Microsoft’s ActiveSync protocol. Additionally, application developers don’t have to worry to add special code to support Google calendars and address books: they just add CalDav and CardDav support and they automatically support almost all groupware servers and services available.

This is good news and gives me back some trust in Google’s policies and priorities. There is still no CalDav or CardDav support in Android, yes – but at least the server side is better now.

Skype is following your links – that’s proprietary for you

network-63770_150
Yesterday it was reported that Skype, owned by Microsoft these days, seems to automatically follow each exchanged https link. Besides the fact that this is a huge security and personal rights problem in its own it again shows how important it is to not trust a proprietary system.

The problem, skin deep

Heise reported yesterday that Skype follows https links which have been exchanged in chats on a regular basis. First and foremost, this is a privacy issue: it looks like Skype, and thus Microsoft, scans your chat history and acts based on these findings on a regular base. That cannot be explained by “security measures” or anything like it and is not acceptable. My personal data are mine, and Microsoft should not have anything to do with as long as there is no need!

Second, there is the security problem: imagine you are exchanging private links, or even links containing passwords and usernames for direct access (you shouldn’t, but sometimes you have to). Microsoft does follows these links -and therefore gains full access to all data hidden there. Imagine these are sensitive data (private or business), you have no idea what Microsoft is going to do with them.

Third, there is the disturbing part: Microsoft only follows the https links, only the encrypted URLs. If this action would be a security thing, they would surely follow the http links as well. So there must be another explanation – but which one? It is disturbing to know that Microsoft has a motivation to regularly follow links to specifically secured content.

The problem, profound

While these news are shocking, the root problem is not Skype or the behavior of Microsoft – I am pretty sure that their Licence Agreement will cover such actions. And it is most likely that others like WhatsApp, Facebook Chat or whatnot do behave in similar ways. So the actual problem is handing over all your data to a company which you have no inside to. You have no idea what they are doing, you have no control about it, and you cannot even be sure that nothing bad is done with it. Also, most vendors try to lock you in with your service, so that switching away from them is painfully due to used workflows, tools and social networks.

The solution

From my point of view, my personal perfect solution is hosting such sensitive services on my own. However, that cannot be a solution for everyone, and I for myself cannot provide for example the SLAs others need.

Thus I guess the best solution is to be conscious about what you do – and what the consequences are. Try to avoid proprietary solutions where possible. For example for chats, try to use open protocols like XMPP. Google Talk is a good example here: company based, but still using open protocols, they even push the development forward (Jingle, …). Or, if you upload files to web services, make sure you have local backup. Also, try not to upload sensitive data – if you have to, encrypt it beforehand. And if you use social networks, try to not depend on one of them too much, use cross posts for various services at the same time if possible.

And, last but not least: ask your service providers to establish transparency and rules for a responsible and acceptable usage of your data. After all, they depend on the users trust, and if enough users are requesting such changes, they will have to follow.