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Android is finally copying one of the best things about iMessage on the iPhone

Published May 25th, 2020 7:31AM EDT
Google Messages
Image: Google

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  • Google Messages end-to-end encryption support might be coming soon, leaked code from an internal build of the RCS instant messaging app indicates.
  • Google’s iMessage rival supports many of the same rich messaging features available in iMessage and many other chat apps, but end-to-end encryption isn’t one of them.
  • Google is currently testing an app update to its newest Messages app that would bring the security functionality over to Android default texting.

A single iPhone app is important that it might keep you hooked to iOS forever, and that’s iMessage. It’s an SMS alternative that Apple devised many years ago, the one that brought over the blue message bubbles to mobile, which become a key identifier for iPhone users. iMessage works on iPad and Mac, offering the same set of rich texting features, and all communication is protected by end-to-end encryption. Apple never made an iMessage app for Android or any other platform, and Google has been struggling to come up with a similar alternative for many years. The latest attempt is called RCS (rich communication services), and it’s not available to Android users everywhere. Moreover, Google Messages is less secure than iMessage, as it doesn’t support end-to-end encryption, which is a key feature for messaging apps. Google is finally going to fix it, as it’s already testing full encryption on an internal build of Google Messages.

iMessage was the first to make end-to-end encryption popular among chat apps. What that type of encryption does is to ensure that only the sender and the recipient of the message can read it. It can’t be intercepted by hackers or accessed by the company.

Other apps, including WhatsApp and Signal, also offer end-to-end encrypted instant messaging. Facebook confirmed last year that all of its properties that can provide chat support, including Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram, will move to end-to-end encryption. With that in mind, Google can hardly afford not to match those offerings when it comes to mobile security standards.

End-to-end encryption is referenced in Google Messages 6.2.031, an internal app release first found by APK Mirror.

The folks at 9to5Google analyzed the code and found several traces where end-to-end encryption is clearly referenced. Here are a few examples:

<string name=”encrypted_rcs_message”>End-to-End Encrypted Rich Communication Service message</string>

<string name=”encryption_default_fallback_body”>”SMS/MMS texts aren’t end-to-end encrypted.\n\nTo send with end-to-end encryption, wait for improved data connection or send messages now as SMS/MMS.”</string>

As seen in the second example above, Google Messages will require an internet connection for the feature to work. Without cellular internet or Wi-Fi, iMessage fails as well and can fall back on SMS/MMS, which are unencrypted by default.

Google’s RCS platform will work similarly, and you’ll probably be able to customize your RCS experience. On the iPhone, you can choose not to send messages as SMS/MMS when there’s no internet.

The code also indicates that when sending location data to your contacts, the information will be encrypted. Also, you’ll be able to allow apps to access the contents of your messages.

Also, both parties might have to use Google Messages to take advantage of end-to-end encryption, although other RCS apps could also get support in the future.

It’s unclear when this particular version of Google Messages will be launched, or whether end-to-end encryption will be enabled soon. But it does look like the kind of security feature that could be advertised for Android 11.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.