Apple's iMessage Encryption Puts Its Security Practices in the DOJ's Crosshairs


The argument is one that some Apple critics have made for years, as spelled out in an essay in January by Cory Doctorow, the science fiction writer, tech critic, and co-author of Chokepoint Capitalism. “The instant an Android user is added to a chat or group chat, the entire conversation flips to SMS, an insecure, trivially hacked privacy nightmare that debuted 38 years ago—the year Wayne’s World had its first cinematic run,” Doctorow writes. “Apple’s answer to this is grimly hilarious. The company’s position is that if you want to have real security in your communications, you should buy your friends iPhones.”

In a statement to WIRED, Apple says it designs its products to “work seamlessly together, protect people’s privacy and security, and create a magical experience for our users,” and adds that the DOJ lawsuit “threatens who we are and the principles that set Apple products apart” in the marketplace. The company also says it hasn’t released an Android version of iMessage because it couldn’t ensure that third parties would implement it in ways that met the company’s standards.

“If successful, [the lawsuit] would hinder our ability to create the kind of technology people expect from Apple—where hardware, software, and services intersect,” the statement continues. “It would also set a dangerous precedent, empowering government to take a heavy hand in designing people’s technology. We believe this lawsuit is wrong on the facts and the law, and we will vigorously defend against it.”

Apple has, in fact, not only declined to build iMessage clients for Android or other non-Apple devices, but actively fought against those who have. Last year, a service called Beeper launched with the promise of bringing iMessage to Android users. Apple responded by tweaking its iMessage service to break Beeper’s functionality, and the startup called it quits in December.

Apple argued in that case that Beeper had harmed users’ security—in fact, it did compromise iMessage’s end-to-end encryption by decrypting and then re-encrypting messages on a Beeper server, though Beeper had vowed to change that in future updates. Beeper cofounder Eric Migicovsky argued that Apple’s heavyhanded move to reduce Apple-to-Android texts to traditional text messaging was hardly a more secure alternative.

“It’s kind of crazy that we’re now in 2024 and there still isn’t an easy, encrypted, high-quality way for something as simple as a text between an iPhone and an Android,” Migicovsky told WIRED in January. “I think Apple reacted in a really awkward, weird way—arguing that Beeper Mini threatened the security and privacy of iMessage users, when in reality, the truth is the exact opposite.”

Even as Apple has faced accusations of hoarding iMessage’s security properties to the detriment of smartphone owners worldwide, it’s only continued to improve those features: In February it upgraded iMessage to use new cryptographic algorithms designed to be immune to quantum codebreaking, and last October it added Contact Key Verification, a feature designed to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks that spoof intended contacts to intercept messages. Perhaps more importantly, it’s said it will adopt the RCS standard to allow for improvements in messaging with Android users—although the company did not say whether those improvements would include end-to-end encryption.



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