The quaint medium of text messaging has advanced greatly in iOS and Android, between Apple’s iMessage service and Google’s newer “RCS.” But text chats between those two platforms remain about as technologically advanced as Nokia flip phones. They still lack encryption to foil snoopers and interactive features to brighten the banter.
At its I/O conference last month, Google invited Apple to fix that by supporting its attempt to secure and enhance texting: the Rich Communications Services (RCS) standard its Messages app uses.
Touting 500 million-plus Android users using RCS, Android product-management vice president Sameer Samat said in that May 11 keynote: “We hope every mobile operating system gets the message and upgrades to RCS.”
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Samat didn’t have to say “Apple.” While Google has lined up U.S. smartphone vendors and wireless carriers to ship its Messages app after a shaky 2019 RCS rollout here, Apple hasn’t added RCS to the iMessage service it launched in 2011 and keeps exclusive to other Apple devices.
And at its WWDC conference Monday, Apple ignored Google’s plea, instead announcing such new iOS messaging features as options to recall or edit recently-sent messages.
Both iMessage and RCS scramble messages in transit (which requires a data connection), but where RCS can encrypt individual chats end-to-end (keeping them scrambled everywhere but the actual phones), iMessage does that for both individual and group chats. Both also support features like typing indicators and “tapback” emoji.
But neither interoperates with the other. A text from an Android user to an iPhone user and vice versa gets sent “in the clear,” arriving in a blue bubble on an iPhone and in a light-gray bubble on Android devices.
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Evan Greer, director of the tech-policy activist group Fight For the Future, blamed Apple in an email: “It’s outrageous that Apple continues to put people at risk by refusing to make iMessage encrypted and interoperable with RCS messaging.”
Apple declined to speak on the record about this privacy gap or how it squares with it declaring privacy “a fundamental human right.” But company leadership seems to object most to RCS not delivering full end-to-end encryption, along with abuses of RCS verified business messaging in such markets as India.
Those fair critiques conflict with Apple accepting other falls from communications grace. For example, its Mail app encrypts messages in transit but not end to end, and iPhones still lack the call-screening tools Google shipped four years ago to block robocalls.
Apple notes how other messaging apps let you use your phone number in encrypted chats. But the leading U.S. option, Facebook’s WhatsApp, has other privacy implications.
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Not only is it a property of that often-distrusted social network, it demands access to your phone’s contacts for basic functionality. Unlike either an antique pay phone–or the end-to-end-encrypted app Signal, a less-used phone messaging option–WhatsApp doesn’t let you dial random digits.
Google, meanwhile, might have a stronger case for RCS if it would add it to its own Google Voice service, which already runs on iPhones.
While Apple and Google struggle to get their messaging stories straight, their customers remain stuck with one of the least-private ways to communicate. And expecting all of us to patch this problem by picking a single phone platform is not only never going to happen, it should never be our job.
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