EFF: Google’s Allo Incognito mode endangers users

End-to-end encryption in messaging apps is meant to protect users’ privacy, but the way Google did it in its new Allo app may perversely endanger private communications, according to Electronic Frontiers Foundation.

Even before Google launched Allo, the app was criticized by privacy advocates over Google disabling end-to-end encryption by default, which differentiated it from Apple’s iMessage and WhatsApp, which do encrypt end-to-end by default to ensure only the sender and recipient can see a message.

In Allo, messages are only encrypted in this manner if the user selects Incognito mode, but in default mode the app only encrypts messages in transit.

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden said Google’s decision made the app “dangerous” and “unsafe” to use and repeated that warning at Allo’s September launch.

Once chats in Allo’s default mode reach Google’s servers they’re available for its machine learning algorithms to analyze and make smart suggestions, like automating a reply after recognizing an received photo. Chats sent in Incognito mode are end-to-end encrypted, but since they can’t be analyzed by Google’s algorithms it sacrifices the app’s Smart Reply and Google Assistant features.

On the upshot, Google has made Incognito mode easy to use since switching it on doesn’t require digging through settings but simply tapping on the main interface to select which mode the user wants a chat to be in.

However, EFF today argued that while Allo makes Incognito convenient to use, it may ultimately be “dangerous for all users”, in particular because Google uses the term “Incognito” in Chrome to refer to when Chrome isn’t storing web activity is the browser history, but otherwise has nothing to do with end-to-end encryption.

“Google's decision to use the same label for these two very different sets of security guarantees is likely to cause users to misunderstand and underestimate Allo’s end-to-end encryption—or, even worse, overestimate Chrome’s incognito browsing mode and expose themselves to more risk than the name “incognito” leads them to expect,” EFF researcher Gennie Gebhart writes.

But Allo’s optional Incognito mode may also produce a worrying side-effect that could make it easier for a criminal hacker or government authority to determine which chats are worth targeting.

As Gebhart argues, since Incognito is billed as a feature for sending private or secret messages, it encourages users to select that mode when they’re sending valuable or compromising data, such as credit card information, a sext or details to coordinate a political rally.

The feature’s optional nature essentially flags to an attacker where the valuable information lies whereas if all messages were encrypted by default an attacker wouldn’t have a clue where to start looking.

The same concept applies at a community level, where if only targeted individuals use end-to-end encrypted apps, it signals which apps to go after. In other words, as Gebhart contends, encrypting your communications, even if you have nothing to hide, helps protect those people who do have something to hide — an argument that touches on the ongoing encryption debate over law enforcement access and the rise of secure messaging apps.

So what should Google do instead of its two-mode option? According to EFF, it should split the app in two and offer a truly secure version and a less secure one, or it could offer a setting in Allo to automatically end-to-end encrypt and auto-delete all conversations all the time.

An Allo developer did actually suggest such the setting option in a personal blogpost following the initial furore over encryption being off by default in the app. However that passage was quickly deleted.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags End-to-end encryptionAlloEdward Snowdenusers’ privacyAllo appIncognito modeCSO AustraliaApple’s iMessage and WhatsAppGoogle’s

More about AppleEFFGoogleNSASmart

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Liam Tung

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts