Privacy is a tricky thing. Many messaging apps claim to protect your privacy from criminals and corporations, but what about the government? You may be seeing messages about digital investigations and wondering, “Can the FBI use my information?”
A recent FBI report offers some answers. The document, originally dated January 2021, describes what types of data the FBI can legally obtain from various messaging apps. The way the FBI can track you makes some of these apps appear less secure than they initially appeared.
What the FBI can see
the FBI document includes nine popular messaging apps: iMessage, Line, Signal, Telegram, Threema, Viber, WeChat, WhatsApp and Wickr. How the FBI can use your information varies by app. Here’s a rundown of what they can access from each.
iMessage is one of the least secure services according to the FBI. It can view limited message content, basic user information, contacts, date and time information, encryption keys, sender and recipient information, and even your iCloud backups. Because iCloud stores unencrypted message backups by default, the FBI gains access to a lot of content.
The FBI can also access limited news content online. Usage information and user information such as names, phone numbers, and email addresses may also be accessible.
Compared to other apps, the FBI can’t get much out of Signal. It can’t pull message content, so everything you say on the app stays private. All the FBI can see is the last date you connected to the service and when you signed up for it.
Telegram is also very secure. The FBI cannot retrieve message content or contact information. Telegram can give them IP addresses and phone numbers, but only for confirmed terrorism investigations.
Threema, which recently drew attention as the only authorized intelligence service for the Swiss military, is relatively private as it is not subject to it US Cloud Law, but not as much as some might expect. The FBI can see phone numbers and email addresses, but only if you provide them, some usage information, and login information. News content is taboo.
Although Viber also doesn’t give the FBI access to message content, it’s not the most secure option. Account registration data, IP addresses, time and date information, as well as timestamps, dates, source and destination of messages are all accessible.
WeChat is safer for users in China than people in other countries. The FBI can access names, numbers, email addresses, and IP addresses of accounts outside of China, but not accounts inside the country. Message content is private for all users.
WhatsApp is surprisingly not secure, giving the FBI limited access to message content, contacts, message sources and destinations, and information like blocked users. Unencrypted iPhone backups can expose even more data.
Wickr provides the FBI with a significant amount of information. It can see time and date information, device information, how many addresses and phone numbers are associated with an account, account settings changes, and the total number of messages.
How to maximize your privacy
Keep in mind that there are limits to how the FBI can track you using this data. Most of these apps require investigators to have a warrant or subpoena to legally access this information. The FBI can’t use your information without a good reason to investigate you.
Still, it’s a good idea to take a few extra steps to stay as private as possible. regulations like that Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) require some organizations to meet certain security standards, but many recommended steps are optional.
An often optional step that you should enable is end-to-end encryption. Some apps enable this by default, but go into your settings to make sure it’s enabled, just in case. If you don’t have it turned on, it’s easier for prying eyes to see your messages.
If you have an iPhone, you might want to turn off automatic iCloud backups. Apple doesn’t offer end-to-end encryption for these backups, so they may be visible to the FBI and other parties.
“Safe” apps aren’t always as safe as they seem
Many apps claim to be safe, but that doesn’t mean they are in all situations. As these records show, even the most private apps can reveal some information.
Knowing about these issues can help you make the best decision to keep your conversations private. Understand what different apps have to offer and remember that nothing is 100% secure. So be careful what you do and say online.
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