Operation innovation: Privatised messaging for student security

08/03/20194 Minute Read

For IT managers at any organisation, privatised messaging is an area of information security worth considering. Chances are, you heard about Evernote’s recent announcement that their employees are allowed to view users’ notes. Forbes described this omission as the worst privacy policy to date. While Evernote CEO Chris O’Neill took to the company blog to clarify his stance after public uproar, the situation brought personal content security back to center stage.

Messaging apps are the new social media. Mark Zuckerberg is even the first to admit that people are messaging more than they’re scrolling through their Twitter or Facebook feed. Recent studies confirm that young people are the most likely to shun email or social media in favor of one-on-one or group messaging via apps. For IT pros at schools and universities, the use of messaging apps and related privacy issues is an important topic.

While the shift away from private Facebook groups for collaboration may seem strange, Business Insider points out that messaging apps aren’t just a platform for exchanging messages. Users log into these “ecosystems” for “exchanging messages, pictures, videos, and GIFs.” Join us as we review why privatised messaging matters—and where innovation in this area is focused.

Should messaging be privatised?

Facebook’s recent leap into secret conversations, or messages that offer end-to-end encryption, reveals that security is the focus of innovation in the messaging app space. However, there’s still a way to go for most of the truly popular app options. Analysis of just one popular messaging app revealed a host of risks that include malware, crash messages, easily bypassed privacy settings, and more.

For education security professionals, assume your students will use messaging to share files, discuss projects, and release other information that could result in risks if it fell into the wrong hands. What now?

CIO’s Matt Kapko writes that in any settings where end users have access to personal mobile devices, there’s going to be communication via messaging apps. Ultimately, it’s too much of an uphill battle to change this fact. Methods of control and risks can vary between educational and corporate settings. The job of the IT pro in both instances is to guide users toward better choices, not discourage the use of messaging—which is probably pointless anyway.

The cutting-edge of secure messaging

Most security enthusiasts have at least heard of Signal, a mobile and computer application that offers state-of-the-art security in the privatised messaging space. This includes total end-to-end encryption and a zero information retention policy, thanks to a unique technology that requires the exchange of cryptographic keys between recipients. Signal’s creators and staffers can’t read your messages, and that’s fine with them.

According to consumer tech journalist Brian X. Chen, “There is no logical reason to skip using Signal.” In fact, its security sets the bar for other apps, including messengers offered at places like Facebook, Google, and WhatsApp. Since Chen’s analysis, one of his biggest complaints about the app—a lack of sticker functionality—has been resolved in a recent update.

While TechCrunch describes Signal as being “poised for widespread adoption,” is it possible to encourage students to use WhatsApp above more popular alternatives, like Facebook messenger or Snapchat? While Edward Snowden may give the app his seal of approval, will your students follow in his ultra-secure footsteps?

Limit your users’ risks

Chances are, your students already exchange personal data on apps you’ve never heard of. The best you can do is apply the same approach as Gartner research director Adam Preset. As CIO’s Kapko pointed out, Preset’s a firm believer that “communication is like water … [because] it flows via the path of least resistance.” At your campus, creating less resistance around Signal may involve encouraging your lecturers to adopt Signal, encouraging student groups and classmates to just keep using the app for course-related communications.

Educators Doug Jacobson and Julie A. Rursch believe that information security is a fundamental component of modern education, taking up space on the syllabus next to history. While you may not be able to impact what your students learn, you can make secure messaging apps a familiar choice for your instructors, which could encourage better adoption among your student body.

Despite Evernote’s shocking announcement, security is innovation-focused in the privatised messaging space. As Signal raises the bar for security in messaging, other app giants are quickly following suit. IT pros in both corporations and educational institutions should assume their end users rely on messaging to communicate and share sensitive information. Your job is to encourage them to use the right, encrypted options.

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