01 June 2016 ~ 0 Comments

WhatsApp adds secure message encryption

WhatsApp recently announced that it has added end-to-end encryption to all its messages. We previously looked at how governments spy on your mobile but what is the implication of this change for the over one billion people who use the application? And what does encryption actually mean?

Seen in the light of the recent battle between Apple and the FBI to give the security agency access to private messages and information, this is a significant move by the Facebook-owned company. It means that WhatsApp are physically unable to give third parties access to messages, images, and even voice recordings since the messages are encrypted and the company has no access to the content of these messages. The company is one of first communication platforms to offer full end-to-end encryption, which is on by default. It is likely that other companies will offer a similar service soon.

“The desire to protect people’s private communication is one of the core beliefs we have at WhatsApp, and for me, it’s personal”, said Jan Koum, one of the app’s founders who was raised in Ukraine under Soviet rule. “The fact that people couldn’t speak freely is one of the reasons my family moved to the United States,” he said on WhatsApp’s official blog page.

End-to-end encryption is the jumbling of information using a “key” to then decrypt it. What happens is that each party has a couple of keys, one which is public and one which is private. Only the sender and recipient of the message are able to see the contents of the message. True end-to-end encryption is known as “zero knowledge” which means the platform responsible for hosting the message (WhatsApp) has no knowledge whatsoever of the information contained within the message.

Users do not need to activate encryption. It happens automatically and also applies to WhatsApp calls. You can check if encryption is working by tapping on the message which comes up after you have sent your message. It should read as follows: “Messages that you send to this chat and calls are now secured with end-to-end encryption.” You can then view a QR code and a 60-digit number. You can also scan your QR code or compare the 60-digit number with the person you are chatting with. We’d also recommend updating your security settings so all security messages are displayed – this might help you avoid man in the middle attacks that could compromise your communications.

The decision to enable end-to-end encryption on all WhatsApp communication has not met universal approval. Many governments are unhappy that there is no way to access private messages and in the UK politicians have proposed banning the technology or forcing companies to install backdoors that would weaken the security so that messages can be read by spies.

Of course, this shows an alarming level of technical illiteracy and failure to think through consequences by politicians. Not only will intentionally weakening encryption technology have severe and troubling repercussions for the functioning of the internet as a whole, it is trivial for anyone with nefarious intentions to simply switch to other, mathematically-proven, encryption algorithms and it will only weaken the security of normal people.

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29 May 2013 ~ 0 Comments

Google Hangouts: the lowdown

One of Google’s big announcements at the recent Google I/O developer conference in San Franciso was the updated instant message app now called Google Hangouts. Announced on the first day of the conference, the new version that replaces Google Chat and Google Talk is set to revolutionise instant messaging on smartphones.

We’ve been testing the app for the last week and have been very impressed. It’s certainly a massive improvement on the previous Google Talk app on Android and certainly vastly betters all the alternatives now such as iMessage and WhatsApp or even Kik, Trillian and GroupMe.

google hangouts

What are the updates?

First of all, let’s talk about what’s new compared to the previous version of Google Talk. Google markets the new app as “bringing your conversations to life”. It might not quite live up to that hyperbole, but the user interaction is certainly a lot smoothly and the communication with your friends and realistic is definitely much more vivid and intimate.

There are two main ways to hang out with your contacts – via text chats and video chats. We’re tried both out but suspect most mobile phone users will be using text chats for much of the time. As far as the technical aspects go, there’s currently a limit of 100 contacts in each text chat and 10 people in each video chat – these are sufficiently high that we doubt users will ever encounter these restrictions.

One of the key things about the new Google Hangouts is that it’s truly multi-platform. It’s available on iOS as well as Android and also links into the desktop experience as long as you have a Google account. Setting it up on Android is as simple as updating your existing Google Talk app through the Play Store and on Gmail all you need to do is click on your user icon in the Chats sidebar and enable the new Google Hangouts.

Using Hangouts

In all the things we’ve tried and tested Hangouts looks great and is incredibly smooth. In fact the new animations are a joy to behold. New messages pop in and your replies effortlessly slide into place. It’s a butter-smooth user experience. You even get great long-awaited features like notifications that your chat partners are currently typing.

The video chat is great too. Smartphone users have the choice of whether to broadcast the front camera on their phone or the higher quality back camera. And video resolution is great regardless of whether there are only two people in the chat or five. We even tested it and found it to work perfectly over a weak 3G connection. This could easily replace Skype overnight.

Perhaps the only criticism of the new app is the lack of user statuses. Previously you could set yourself manually as Away, Busy or even Invisible. If you choose to use hangouts, these options are no longer available. You’re either online or not. It seems that clients will still mark you as away when you’re not actively using Hangouts but there’s no longer the privacy option to appear as away to all your contacts. Hopefully Google will reintroduce this feature soon.

Fun stuff

If you don’t think you’re quite having enough fun chilling with your mates in Hangouts, Google have included some extra Easter Eggs to liven things up. For example, you can type in things IRC-style such as /me go makes a cup of tea to perform actions. There are other keywords such as /pitchforks, /shydino and /bikeshed which also cause cool little graphics which you’ll have to try out for yourself to see what they do. Our favourite is the classic cheatcode that can be typed in on the keyboard with ↑↑↓↓←→←→AB[enter] to give your a beautiful new tree-filled background to your chat window.

Our opinion

We have to admit to being incredibly impressed by Hangouts after a first look. Everything works as it should and, best of all, it looks and feels very smart. Of course there are criticisms and many minor improvements we’d like to see Google make over the coming months. However, truthfully, there aren’t any IM apps that are as well-featured or that we’d rather use at the moment.

It’s certainly a shame that you are often pressganged into joining Google+. And it would be nice to have some more privacy options. However, this is a cross-platform panacea for those wanting to keep in touch with their close ones. We’re delighted by an attempt to unify the fragmented IM scene on mobile. And it’s great for us data-hoarders that everything you say is (optionally) recorded in perpetuity in your Gmail account. Would be nice to have video chats archived too although we wouldn’t be surprised if this is coming soon.

Another negative point is the fact that XMPP server-to-server communications has been cut out so that Jabber and other services ahave been excised. But client-to-server options are still available so that Pidgin (for example) can still integrate with it. One more missing option is plain voice calls rather than video calls. As this was support by Google Chat through Gmail previously, we can only assume this option is coming soon.


Overall, this is a very positive update to Google’s IM solutions and, while the excessive integration with other Google products and missing launch features is a minor bugbear, we’re confident in proclaiming it the best chat client current available on mobile. Probably on desktop too.

Google has kept things simple and easy. Real world usage between real people is much more pleasant and effortless using this new app. We can say that for sure. It’ also very stable, at least on Android. Google has carved out an impressive advantage over its competitors with this release. We’re just desperate to finally get Google Voice as well here in the UK.

For an introduction to using Hangouts, there’s a fantastic guide over here.

Have you tried Hangouts yet on your smartphone? What do you think about the new app? What are your favourite features and biggest omissions? And do you think any thing can rival it for instant messaging or free video calls? Let us know!

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11 February 2013 ~ 0 Comments

Spotify now on Windows 8

spotifySpotify, the subscription-based streaming music service in now available on Windows Phone 8 handsets. If you have a smartphone and like to listen to music, it’s one of the must-have apps currently available. The current release is still officially a beta form but we haven’t noticed any obvious creases or bugs so there’s not reason not to go ahead and install it now.

For those who don’t know, Spotify is a cloud-music service that lets you listen to any song from a massive library of millions of artists’ catalogues. You don’t need to own any of the records to listen to them and all music is streamed from the web rather than downloaded permanently onto your PC or other device. Without a doubt, Spotify’s library of artists is truly impressive both in depth and range. You’d be hard pressed to find a song that’s not on there (as long as it’s already out) regardless of whether it’s the latest Top 40 hit or a new single from a tiny band in your village.

Spotify is a free service but the catch is that you’re limited to a certain monthly allowance of music streaming and you’re forced to listen to advertisements in between songs too. You also can’t use the mobile phone apps with a free account. In order to remove the ads, unlock unlimited listening and get music on the go, you need to pay a £10 subscription fee – about the same price as buying an album a month.

There are a few issues with Spotify – the ads are annoying and repetitive and if you pay for a subscription, you lose all access to your starred tracks if you ever let it lapse. Also, for a cloud-based service it is not well user-oriented. Each of your devices is treated entirely separately so if you start listening to a record on your phone it’s not simple to finish off the LP when you get back to your computer or tablet at home. Also, it’s a peer-to-peer (P2P) app meaning that you’ll be using up some of your upload bandwidth allowance distributing music to other users so that the Spotify servers don’t get overloaded. This isn’t great for people with a low monthly data limit.

However, these relate to the service itself (which will hopefully improve) and not to the app in particular. If you already use Spotify and are happy with it, the app is pretty much an obligatory download. The app looks great on Windows Phone 8 devices with a really lush and clear interface. It’s also very easy to use and navigate between artists, albums, songs and playlists. It’s even simple to share music amongst other Spotify users.

You can download the app free of charge now. And if you’re not already a Spotify subscriber, you can even sign up for a free 30 day trial to check it out for yourself.

Are you a Spotify user? Have you used Spotify on a smartphone? Or is there another music subscription service that you prefer? Let us know 🙂

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