In Encryption We Don’t Trust: The Effect of End-to-End Encryption to the Masses on User Perception


With WhatsApp’s adoption of the Signal Protocol as its default, end-to-end encryption by the masses happened almost overnight. Unlike iMessage, WhatsApp notifies users that encryption is enabled, explicitly informing users about improved privacy. This rare feature gives us an opportunity to study people’s understandings and perceptions of secure messaging pre-and post-mass messenger encryption (pre/post-MME). To study changes in perceptions, we compared the results of two mental models studies: one conducted in 2015 pre-MME and one in 2017 post-MME. Our primary finding is that users do not trust encryption as currently offered. When asked about encryption in the study, most stated that they had heard of encryption, but only a few understood the implications, even on a high level. Their consensus view was that no technical solution to stop skilled attackers from getting their data exists. Even with a major development, such as WhatsApp rolling out end-to-end encryption, people still do not feel well protected by their technology. Surprisingly, despite WhatsApp’s end-to-end security info messages and the high media attention, the majority of the participants were not even aware of encryption. Most participants had an almost correct threat model, but don’t believe that there is a technical solution to stop knowledgeable attackers to read their messages. Using technology made them feel vulnerable.

Proceedings of the 2019 IEEE European Symposium on Security and Privacy