A false sense of security is worse than no security at all
[Last modified on Tuesday, June 14, 2022, 14:54: added a paragraph summarizing the problem at the beginning of the first imaginary reply]
Whatsapp, Telegram, Element/Matrix, Protonmail, Tutanota are just the most known and widely used services, among many, offering end-to-end encryption not only through their apps, but also through their web sites.
– Can users of these web sites be confident that the people behind these web sites’ servers can’t read their “end-to-end encrypted” contents?
No, they can’t.
Not because end-to-end encryption itself is not secure (it can be); just because the delivery model of web apps, and particularly of their client-side code (i.e. code that will be executed on the user’s device), is incompatible with security: on the server-side, the client-side code that will be executed on the user’s device can be changed at any time by anyone who has access to the server(s) with very little probability of anyone noticing (not the users, and less so a “targeted” user, and less so any “third parties”). It’s not a mistery: anyone with some knowledge of how a browser works knows this; and it’s not even much of a problem (arguably, but this is my opinion), when users trust their web app providers and don’t need to trust that their data are inaccessible to anyone, i.e. not even their web app providers and in general the people on its server(s) side; it is a problem, though, when users do need to be sure of this, and it’s even more a problem when they are told, by the service owners, that this is the case: that nobody, not even them, the service providers and the people on the server(s) side, can access users’ data, while that’s just not true with web apps.
First, let’s get rid of one possible misconception: HTTPS does not make your contents unreadable by the people behind these or any other web site’s servers, it just gives you and those people pretty good security against others who may try to read your contents on the path between your device and the web sites’ servers.
– Is there something John can do, when using web sites offering end-to-end encryption, to be sure the people behind the servers actually won’t read what they are not meant to read?
In order to be sure of that, John should read the whole content his browser gets on each “page” (URL) access and understand what its client-side code actually does, which is totally impractical for anyone.
– Could Jimmy-the-admin get to know John’s password too?
– What can they do, once they get to know a user’s password, say John’s password?
Once they know John’s password, without doing any more “tricks”, they can decrypt John’s private key, that, if John has used one of these web sites even just once, has been stored on their servers (this is declaredly the case with Protonmail, see https://security.stackexchange.com/a/58552; page is archived here: https://archive.is/GQUf3; I’m almost certain it’s the case also with Element/Matrix, Tutanota and all the other providers offering end-to-end encryption through their web sites without requiring their users to pick a local file containing the private key each time it is needed); once they have decrypted John’s private key, they can save it unencrypted on their side and, since that very moment, they can read any encrypted content John received that is still on their servers; they can read any encrypted content John will receive; they can read any encrypted content John has sent that is still on their servers, if John encrypted it with his own public key as well as with his recipients’ ones (which is common practice); they can read any encrypted content John will send, if John will encrypt it with his own public key too ––– and, since that very moment, they can do all of this not only when John is using their web sites, but also when he’s using their applications, because any content John receives and sends, even when using their applications, always passes through their servers; last but not least, they can also send encrypted and-or signed contents on John’s behalf.
– Do you think these security issues have been exploited yet?
I can’t be sure, of course, but there are many suspicious cases: see here and here, for example. In these cases, involving Telegram and Protonmail, it’s not clear and not explained whether Telegram and Protonmail provided authorities with just users’ metadata or even users’ data (conversations contents), but they surely could, in spite of what the already linked Wikipedia page is currently telling: it’s just not true, currently, that «Due to the encryption utilized, Proton Mail is unable to hand over the contents of encrypted emails under any circumstances», as it’s just currently not true in any other case of services offering end-to-end encryption through their web sites.
[I wrote this post in the guise of a dialogue and using male imaginary characters for the sake of comprehensibility and readability]
[My advice to anyone who wants or needs to do instant messaging with affordable end-to-end encryption, that is privacy, is to use Briar, XMPP with OMEMO, or Signal; for affordable e-mail end-to-end encryption on the desktop I suggest using Claws mail with its PGP plugins relying on GnuPG; there may be other affordable desktop e-mail clients (you can see here, although I don’t trust that page suggestions – more on this below), but I have not tested them; for affordable e-mail end-to-end encryption on Android I suggest using K-9 Mail or FairEmail, although they both rely on OpenKeychain for encryption: OpenKeychain is a good project, but sadly it is no longer actively developed since 2018; again: there may be others, but I have not tested them and I don’t trust openpgp.org suggestions since they state that «No security audits have been done by us and, thus, we cannot provide any security guarantees» and also because, in regard to webmail “clients” like Protonmail, Tutanota, etc., they just state a mild «some people don’t consider these “end-to-end secure”» while they have all the means to understand, and could and should declare, that services offering end-to-end encryption through web sites pose a huge security threat to their users]