A Plea for iMessage on Android
Hi Apple, Chris here. I’m an infrastructure guy, general technology enthusiast, and longtime user of various products you produce. Much like Apple itself seems to be, I am a proponent of strong cryptography for securing personal data and communications. Given the current technical and political climate, I think I probably speak for many when I say that I’d love to see iMessage available for Android phones.
The reason I’d love to see this is fundamentally very simple. I believe that people should be able to have a private conversation. Many have concerns about this idea in the modern era, and I don’t think those concerns are invalid, but I also think they are misguided in many cases (I’ll address this bit in the next section).
I have both an iPhone and an Android phone currently, and I periodically switch back and forth. My current favorite if I’m honest is my Google Pixel phone, but I am grateful to live in a time where I have multiple high quality choices. When I am using my iPhone, I miss things about Android. When I am using my Android phone, I miss things about the iPhone. The thing I always miss the most about the iPhone is by far iMessage.
The iMessage ecosystem is, frankly, fantastic. It allows individuals and groups to communicate quickly and conveniently, in real time, and with a variety of visual components if people choose. It works beautifully across commercial and political borders, allowing people to stay in touch easily regardless of where they are. Given how easy it is to use, I don’t think anybody is surprised that iMessage is one of the most used and loved communication platforms in the world.
And it happens to feature full end-to-end encryption.
Most people who use iMessage don’t know or care about this fact, but it is nonetheless true. There are other options for people who favor strong encryption. Programs such as Signal and WhatsApp both offer strong end-to-end encryption by default, and Facebook Messenger has this capability if users choose to employ it. Again, we live in a time when we are fortunate to have quality options.
Unfortunately for a messaging ecosystem, having multiple options isn’t necessarily the most helpful thing. A messaging system is only useful if all the people you want to message are using that same system. And there is no doubt, whatsoever, that iMessage is the frontrunner in this regard. You made a truly great product, Apple, and you have the user numbers to prove it.
Which is why I’m humbly asking you to re-consider opening up the iMessage ecosystem to Android users. I say “re-consider” because I have zero doubt you’ve considered this already, probably many times, and probably with people much smarter than myself thinking about the ramifications of what it would mean for Apple as a company. If the decision is that releasing iMessage for Android would hurt Apple, then nothing I or anybody says will get you to do it (as it shouldn’t). But if you were to release iMessage for Android, you would increase the amount of secure communication happening worldwide enormously.
Simply put, Apple is the only company that has the potential to do this right now at such a significant scale.
But Won’t This Be Abused?
I live in Los Angeles, not far from where the San Bernardino shootings happened. After the event, Apple came under a great deal of scrutiny for refusing to attempt to create some kind of back door that would have allowed authorities to see the contents of an iPhone carried by one of the assailants. Apple refused. I strongly believe Apple was in the right on this issue.
I understand the desire to “get the bad guys”. Seriously, I get it, and nothing I am writing here comes from a desire to hinder law enforcement from doing their jobs. Unfortunately, trying to get a company like Apple to create a back door I believe comes from a basic misunderstanding about how cryptography works in relation to secure communications. I’m not a cryptographer though I do understand more than the average layperson about it. This is the part that I think many, many people misunderstand.
Strong cryptography, and by extension secure communications, does not exist because a company like Apple (or Microsoft, or Facebook, or anybody) made an “encrypted product”. Strong cryptography exists because the math required to encrypt things exists. It’s existed for a while and it’s understood by a lot of people.
During the fallout from the tragedy I recall reading something from a lawmaker who was trying to get Apple to create a back door into the iPhone. His basic argument was something along the lines of “No individual or company can exist beyond the reach of a lawful investigation”. This is not a position that I dispute. However, as it turns out the laws of mathematics can and do exist beyond any law that we humans may come up with. The math works the same independent of the company who uses it. It works the same regardless of the nationality, race or religion of any end user who is invoking it. The math, quite frankly, is unconcerned with any conflicts that people may be working through here on Earth.
If Apple was forced to create a cryptographic back door to something like iMessage, this would not stop any bad actor who wanted to communicate securely. Again, the math needed to do that already exists. That ship has sailed. Any bad actor can already communicate as securely as they choose to. A platform like iMessage might make that easy to do, but as soon as it’s known to be insecure, anybody who cares about security would simply stop using it and use something else.
Conversely, if that back door were to exist, it would tell attackers of all types, from curious individuals all the way to well funded nation states, that there was a bull’s eye on iMessage. It would eventually get compromised, and the communications of many would be needlessly exposed.
A back door like this would therefore gain us essentially nothing against bad guys who want to communicate securely, but would end up compromising the messages of a lot of normal folks for no good reason.
So, in Closing…
The Internet when it was conceived didn’t really have any notions of security built into it. I’m pretty sure if the original architects could go back and do it all again this might well be a different story, but that doesn’t change today’s reality. We are, all of us, just starting to learn how to stay safe online, and cryptography is deeply intertwined into that effort. If iMessage were made available to Android phones it would be one of the biggest single things that could happen worldwide to keep users’ communications secured. So Apple, I’m asking you to consider it. Thanks for hearing me out.