It was interesting to discover last week that Hillary Clinton’s campaign is using the encrypted messaging app Signal. Vanity Fair magazine claims that they began to do so following this year’s Democratic National Convention data leaks.
This is a great opportunity to address secure messaging, using Clinton and her opposite number in the race for the White House, Donald Trump, as examples. The Clinton campaign’s decision to use Signal is an admirable step in the right direction. But really, as candidates for the most important job in the world, don’t both Clinton and Trump deserve better? Because Signal is far from perfect, and could prove a severely inappropriate tool for Presidential nominees and their campaigns.
Earlier this year, German researchers at Braunschweig University of Technology revealed a serious flaw in the Signal app, amongst others, when used on an Android device. ‘Surreptitious Sharing’ as the bug is known, gives hackers the opportunity to capture data and access passwords, private keys and message histories. Dominik Schürmann, one of the researchers, stated that “The vulnerability is present in many published communication apps, allowing privilege escalation and data leakage. In the worst case, this can possibly leak private keys stored by popular encrypted messaging apps, such as Threema, Telegram or Signal.” The researchers went on to explain how they captured Signal’s database.
Only last month, USENIX VID University researchers announced they had developed Retroscope, a smartphone app that can, again amongst others, retrieve up to 11 of Signal’s previous screens displayed when running on a Samsung S4, LG G3, and HTC One.
In both cases, Signal was not the only secure communications app exposed, but there’s a long distance between ‘not the worst’ and ‘the best.’ Along with flaws, it’s important that our Democrat and Republican nominees also look at the functionality and how it works with their requirements.
Is Signal certified for Government use in the US? With FBI Director James Comey announcing a concerted attack on encryption in 2017, it would be important to be on the right side of that argument. It is unsurprising that the FBI plans to target providers of Irresponsible Encryption, who allow their apps to be used by anyone, without running any checks at all. Finding out on the news that you’re on the same messaging tool as a suspected terrorist is not advantageous for anyone’s political ambitions.
Data servers are another important consideration if our candidates are going to be dealing with highly sensitive information. Wouldn’t they rather retain complete control of their data, with the ability to choose between hosting on the cloud or on their own on premise data-servers? And what about the practical business of secure conference calling and desk-top options? It may have been good enough for Snowden, but when it comes to serving the next President of the USA, Signal falls short across the board.
I can talk with experience, because at CSG we have actually developed secure communications apps that can be used at the very highest level of government in the US and around the world. Seecrypt and Cellcrypt both offer world-class voice, messaging and document sharing. Yes, you can choose to host in the cloud or within your own data centre. Yes, there is secure ad-hoc conference calling. No, we’ve never been hacked, and yes, Cellcrypt is certified for US Government use.
So my advice, given in all humbleness, would be that if you’re hoping to be the next leader of the free world, it is probably worth entrusting the security and privacy of your campaign to something a little more industrial than a free consumer app.
Harvey Boulter, Chairman, Communication Security Group