Google Deploys End-to-End Encryption for RCS in Android Messages Beta

 After two long and two complex years, every Android user worldwide (outside China and Russia) now has access to the next-generation messaging standard that replaces SMS. 

Google Deploys End-to-End Encryption for RCS in Android
Google RCS

Google offers RCS chat services directly through the Android Messages app for anyone who installs and uses it as a default SMS app, which partially bypasses the launcher's offering that has at times ranged from slow to inconsistent. Shattered.


Equally important, Google announced that it is finally starting to enable its main privacy feature: end-to-end encryption. For Android users who use Android messages, individual conversations will optionally be end-to-end encrypted by default, which means that neither carriers nor Google will be able to read the content of these messages.

Although encryption is just starting to appear to people who signed up for the public beta of Android Messages, enabling encryption for RCS is really important. This is a massive victory when it comes to privacy because it could mean that the actual replacement for SMS text messages will be, by default, the private on the smartphone platform used by the vast majority of people around the world.

For people using another smartphone platform - iPhone - we don't know if Apple intends to adopt the RCS standard. But as carriers around the world are all involved, and there is a clearer path for private communication with RCS, the pressure on Apple to participate is likely to increase.

Unfortunately, the SMS that is now completely out of date and replaced with RCS will only happen if everything goes according to Google's plan. Since its initial announcement of its intention to migrate to the Remote Control System (RCS) as the messaging platform for Android, the rollout of the standard has become mired in confusion. 

In an effort to be neutral and to make Android texting a common standard among carriers around the world, Google has made it their mission to create multi-billion dollar conversations - with results that are unfortunately predictable.

However, last year Google started to take matters into place on its own, slowly allowing users in different countries to obtain RCS services directly from Google rather than waiting for a carrier to activate them. (Even when operators enable it, it is often not interoperable.)

RCS Chat

The company today announced that the process has been completed and that RCS is available via Android Messaging wherever Google provides its services (i.e. not in China). In certain regions and with certain carriers, Google will continue to allow these carriers to operate RCS services if they so desire.

Worldwide availability is a big milestone, but for me, the fact that Google relies on RCS to have Android messages end-to-end encrypted by default is the biggest news. So, let's see how it works exactly because there are a few things you should be aware of.

Google launches End-to-End Encryption for RCS

First off, as mentioned, it'll be rolling out in beta this month, and Google doesn't have a timeline for when encrypted chats will go to the main app. As for people who want to subscribe to the public beta of Android Messages, be aware that Google will roll out the feature as usual gradually, so you might not get it right away.

End-to-end encryption will only work on individual chats when both users are using Android messages and receiving the update. Enabling end-to-end encryption in group chats is a more complex issue, so Google won't stick to a timeline to expand functionality.

Android web messages are only a gateway to the messaging app on your phone, so just like Signal and WhatsApp, the texts you send will also be encrypted in this interface. Speaking of Signal, Google chose Signal to implement encryption - just like WhatsApp. (The signal protocol is simply the code used to secure messages; it does not mean that these applications can work with each other.)

If you send a message to someone who doesn't use Android Messages (for example, someone uses Samsung Messages or iPhone), going back to RCS Chat or less encrypted texting would still work. And since Android Messages' more advanced features are built into the app rather than living in the cloud, enabling encryption shouldn't break the app's other experiences.

The saga continues to reconcile carriers and various other commercial interests with the RCS standard. This standard is called the Global Profile, and it continues to evolve as I write this standard. The only thing that is not part of the Global Profile is the encryption standard adopted by Google. It builds it right on top of RCS in the Android Messages client.

This doesn't mean Google wants its encryption solution to be proprietary. The company told me that it would be happy to work with any company to work on compatibility. Google has published a brief technical article available that provides a high-level overview of Google's encryption method in Android messages.

In other words, implementing Google encryption could someday become part of the Global Profile Standard. As with Apple, there could be some pressure on GSMA (carriers' association) to move toward more coding. Facebook still intends to make all of its messaging apps encrypted by default, so it's increasingly a standard for texting. (Disclosure: My wife works at Facebook Reality Labs, the company's AR / VR division. Read the full ethics statement here.)

As with everything RCS, today's announcements are better to think of as part of an evolutionary process rather than launching them. A lot of things in the tech field have great success moments as products become available instantly and start making an impact right away. RCS isn't one of those things.

Update, 10:25 a.m. EST, November 19: Google released the white paper on how encryption is actually implemented, rather than releasing it later this month as planned. We've also added a link to the availability map, which shows the exclusion of China and Russia. The article has been updated to reflect this.

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