Messaging Apps: How Safe Are They to Use?
Mobile apps expand the use of smartphones beyond simple communication by adding extra functionality to the devices they’re installed on. But one specific kind of mobile app, while certainly popular due to the convenience it offers in terms of long-distance communication costs, can unfortunately be considered a risk to a device owner’sprivacy unless certain measures are taken. This app, also known as a “messaging app,” unless securely used, can very well be a risk that’s not worth taking.
What Are Messaging Apps?
Messaging apps facilitate instant messaging, content sharing, and voice-call making over the Internet. Viber, WhatsApp, and LINE are eaxmaples of these apps. Some of them focus on specific kinds of communication. Snapchat, for instance, allows you to send videos, photos, and drawings to others. It also allows you to set just how long a recipient can view what you sent. After the time limit you set expires, say 1–10 seconds, the file you sent will be hidden from its recipient and deleted from Snapchat’s servers.
Messaging apps have become popular because they only require an active Internet connection to send and receive messages and calls. They’re cheaper alternatives to the text-message and voice-call services carriers offer. Some of them apps also have features similar to those of social networking services, which allow users to create lists of friends and send animated emoticons, also called “stickers.”
Snapchat particularly allows users to discreetly share personal photos and media, as they are permanently removed once the time limit set for viewing is up. This is especially popular among adolescents and teens, according to media sites, as it allowed them to share intimate pictures with their contacts.
Why Do Messaging Apps Pose User Risks?
There are a number of reasons why messaging apps pose potential privacy risks to users.
Malicious fake versions of popular apps invariably crop up in app stores, hoping that careless users would download and install them. This is true for fake messaging apps, too, given their popularity. Snapchat, for one, is said to have at least 30 million active monthly users while WhatsApp and LINE sport 400 million and 300 million registered users, respectively. With these numbers, malicious fake messaging apps are sure to emerge more and more.We’ve seen evidence of this, in fact, with the incident in July 18 last year. We not only saw a fake version of the app lead users to download more malicious apps onto their phones. We also saw reports of a Trojanized version of the app steal information from the mobile devices it was installed on. This was just one among the many attacks targeting messaging apps last year. There’s bound to be more such incidents this year.
But what really makes messaging app use risky is that users have to trust the app developers with their personal information because messaging apps require users to sign up prior to their use. Because of the apps’ popularity, messaging services have also become a huge target for server attacks that can lead to a data breach and personal data leakage.
We’ve seen evidence of this, too, with the Snapchat server hack attack last December 31. The photo-messaging service allegedly failed to fix an application programming interface (API) security vulnerability that was publicly disclosed by security experts a few months prior. Four days before the hacking incident, Snapchat announced that it had implemented a number of mitigating features but was still hacked anyway. This caused approximately 4.6 million usernames and phone numbers to be leaked and published on a public site.
Snapchat was not alone though, as just last month, WhatsApp was abused to spread a banking Trojan to Brazilian users’ devices. This was done with the aid of a malicious email asking users to approve 11 pending friend requests by clicking a link. Those who did as asked downloaded a piece of malware that stole online banking information onto their devices. Last September, WhatsApp was also used as a vector for malicious app distribution. Cybercriminals spammed users with notification emails that led to the download of premium service abusers.
Messaging apps are also starting to diversify to other services like mobile payment. WeChat, for instance, recently rolled out a new feature that allows users to hire and pay taxi cabs via its own online payment system. Should this become a trend, messaging apps can pose even more risks to users since online payment systems require linking a bank card to accounts.
The more popular messaging apps become, the more they will come under attack.
Better Safe Than Sorry
As dangerous as using messaging apps is, there are ways you can still use them without compromising your safety like:
- Be discreet. If you want to use messaging apps as a way to contact certain people, avoid using real-life identification details that can be traced back to you. If that can’t be avoided, use as little real information as possible, depending on the app you’re using. Avoid linking your social networking profiles to your messaging app accounts.
- Secure your messaging app accounts. Use a unique email account for your messaging app. Don’t reuse passwords.
- Don’t share anything you wouldn’t want the public to get wind of. Oversharing is one of the biggest mistakes you can ever make online; using messaging apps is no exception. Be aware of what you share. And when in doubt, keep sensitive information to yourself.
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