tazjin's blog

The SMU-problem of messaging apps

After having tested countless messaging apps over the years, being unsatisfied with most of them and finally getting stuck with Telegram I have developed a little theory about messaging apps.

SMU stands for Security, Multi-Device and Usability. Quite like the CAP-theorem I believe that you can - using current models - only solve two out of three things on this list. Let me elaborate what I mean by the individual points:

Security: This is mainly about encryption of messages, not so much about hiding identities to third-parties. Commonly some kind of asymmetric encryption scheme. Verification of keys used must be possible for the user.

Multi-Device: Messaging-app clients for multiple devices, with devices being linked to the same identifier, receiving the same messages and being independent of each other. A nice bonus is also an open protocol (like Telegram's) that would let people write new clients.

Usability: Usability is a bit of a broad term, but what I mean by it here is handling contacts and identities. It should be easy to create accounts, give contact information to people and have everything just work in a somewhat automated fashion.

Some categorisation of popular messaging apps:

SU: Threema

MU: Telegram, Google Hangouts, iMessage, Facebook Messenger

SM: Signal

Side note: The most popular messaging app - WhatsApp - only scores a single letter (U). This makes it completely uninteresting to me.

Let's talk about SM - which might contain the key to solving SMU. Two approaches are interesting here.

The single key model

In Signal there is a single identity key which can be used to register a device on the server. There exists a process for sharing this identity key from a primary device to a secondary one, so that the secondary device can register itself (see the link above for a description).

This almost breaks M because there is still a dependence on a primary device and newly onboarded devices can not be used to onboard further devices. However, for lack of a better SM example I'll give it a pass.

The other thing it obviously breaks is U as the process for setting it up is annoying and having to rely on the primary device is a SPOF (there might be a way to recover from a lost primary device, but I didn't find any information so far).

The multiple key model

In iMessage every device that a user logs into creates a new key pair and submits its public key to a per-account key pool. Senders fetch all available public keys for a recipient and encrypt to all of the keys.

Devices that join can catch up on history by receiving it from other devices that use its public key.

This almost solves all of SMU, but its compliance with S breaks due to the fact that the key pool is not auditable, and controlled by a third-party (Apple). How can you verify that they don't go and add another key to your pool?

A possible solution

Out of these two approaches I believe the multiple key one looks more promising. If there was a third-party handling the key pool but in a way that is verifiable, transparent and auditable that model could be used to solve SMU.

The technology I have been thinking about for this is some kind of blockchain model and here's how I think it could work:

  1. Bob installs the app and begins onboarding. The first device generates its keypair, submits the public key and an account creation request.

  2. Bob's account is created on the messaging apps' servers and a unique identifier plus the fingerprint of the first device's public key is written to the chain.

  3. Alice sends a message to Bob, her device asks the messaging service for Bob's account's identity and public keys. Her device verifies the public key fingerprint against the one in the blockchain before encrypting to it and sending the message.

  4. Bob receives Alice's message on his first device.

  5. Bob logs in to his account on a second device. The device generates a key pair and sends the public key to the service, the service writes it to the blockchain using its identifier.

  6. The messaging service requests that Bob's first device signs the second device's key and triggers a simple confirmation popup.

  7. Bob confirms the second device on his first device. It signs the key and writes the signature to the chain.

  8. Alice sends another message, her device requests Bob's current keys and receives the new key. It verifies that both the messaging service and one of Bob's older devices have confirmed this key in the chain. It encrypts the message to both keys and sends it on.

  9. Bob receives Alice's message on both devices.

After this the second device can request conversation history from the first one to synchronise old messages.

Further devices added to an account can be confirmed by any of the devices already in the account.

The messaging service could not add new keys for an account on its own because it does not control any of the private keys confirmed by the chain.

In case all devices were lost, the messaging service could associate the account with a fresh identity in the block chain. Message history synchronisation would of course be impossible.

Feedback welcome

I would love to hear some input on this idea, especially if anyone knows of an attempt to implement a similar model already. Possible attack vectors would also be really interesting.

Until something like this comes to fruition, I'll continue using Telegram with GPG as the security layer when needed.

Update: WhatsApp has launched an integration with the Signal guys and added their protocol to the official WhatsApp app. This means WhatsApp now firmly sits in the SU-category, but it still does not solve this problem.

Update 2: Facebook Messenger has also integrated with Signal, but their secret chats do not support multi-device well (it is Signal afterall). This means it scores either SU or MU depending on which mode you use it in.

An interesting service I have not yet evaluated properly is Matrix.