End-to-end encryption

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End-to-end encryption (E2EE) is a system of communication where only the communicating users can read the messages. In principle, it prevents potential eavesdroppers – including telecom providers, Internet providers, and even the provider of the communication service – from being able to access the cryptographic keys needed to decrypt the conversation.[1]

In many messaging systems, including email and many chat networks, messages pass through intermediaries and are stored by a third party[citation needed], from which they are retrieved by the recipient. Even if the messages are encrypted, they are only encrypted 'in transit', and are thus accessible by the service provider[citation needed], regardless of whether server-side disk encryption is used[further explanation needed]. This allows the third party to provide search and other features, or to scan for illegal and unacceptable content, but also means they can be read and misused by anyone who has access to the stored messages on the third party system, whether this is by design or via a backdoor. This can be seen as a concern in many cases where privacy is very important, such as businesses whose reputation depends on their ability to protect third party data, negotiations and communications that are important enough to have a risk of targeted 'hacking' or surveillance, and where sensitive subjects such as health, and information about minors are involved.

End-to-end encryption implements TLS which is intended to prevent data being read or modified, other than by the true sender and recipient(s). The messages are encrypted by the sender but the third party should not have a means to decrypt them[further explanation needed].

No third parties should be able to decipher the data being communicated over TL, E2EE concepts must extend to data storage also, for example, companies that use E2EE are unable to hand over plain text data of their customers to the authorities.[2]

Etymology of the term[edit]

The term "end-to-end encryption" originally only meant that the communication is never decrypted during its transport from the sender to the receiver.[3] For example, around 2003, E2EE has been proposed as an additional layer of encryption for GSM[4] or TETRA[5], in addition to the existing radio encryption protecting the communication between the mobile device and the network infrastructure. This has been standardised by SFPG for TETRA.[6] Note that in TETRA E2EE, the keys are generated by a Key Management Centre (KMC) or a Key Management Facility (KMF), not by the communicating users.[7]

Later, around 2014, the meaning of "end-to-end encryption" started to evolve[citation needed], requiring that not only the communication stays encrypted during transport[citation needed], but also that the provider of the communication service is not able to decrypt the communications[citation needed] either by having access to the private key[citation needed], or by having the capability to undetectably inject an adversarial public key as part of a man-in-the-middle attack[citation needed]. This new meaning is now the widely accepted one[citation needed] in popular communities, the information security industry standards remain unchanged, academic research tends to focus on new modern use cases for E2EE leaving the well defined proven use cases (and their meaning) unchanged, and information security education programs such as the ICS(2) CISSP certification continues to define E2EE as it has always been. Information security professionals have made attempts to popularise a new terminology attempting to address specific concerns with little success in preserving the E2EE meaning.

Key exchange[edit]

In an E2EE system, encryption keys must only be known to the communicating parties. To achieve this goal, E2EE systems can encrypt data using a pre-arranged string of symbols, called a pre-shared secret (PGP), or a one-time secret derived from such a pre-shared secret (DUKPT). They can also negotiate a secret key on the spot using Diffie-Hellman key exchange (OTR).[8]

Modern usage[edit]

As of 2016[citation needed], typical server-based communications systems do not include end-to-end encryption[citation needed]. These systems can only guarantee the protection of communications between clients and servers[citation needed], meaning that users have to trust the third parties who are running the servers with the sensitive content. End-to-end encryption is regarded as safer[citation needed] because it reduces the number of parties who might be able to interfere or break the encryption.[9] In the case of instant messaging, users may use a third-party client or plugin to implement an end-to-end encryption scheme over an otherwise non-E2EE protocol.[10]

Some non-E2EE systems, such as Lavabit and Hushmail, have described themselves as offering "end-to-end" encryption when they did not.[11] Other systems, such as Telegram and Google Allo, have been criticized for not having end-to-end encryption, which they do offer, enabled by default. Telegram did not enable end-to-end encryption by default on VoIP calls while users were using desktop software version, but that problem was fixed quickly.[12][13] However, as of 2020, Telegram still features no end-to-end encryption by default, no end-to-end encryption for group chats, and no end-to-end encryption for its desktop clients.

Some encrypted backup and file sharing services provide client-side encryption. The encryption they offer is here not referred to as end-to-end encryption, because the services are not meant for sharing messages between users[further explanation needed]. However, the term "end-to-end encryption" is sometimes incorrectly used to describe client-side encryption[citation needed].


Man-in-the-middle attacks[edit]

End-to-end encryption ensures that data is transferred securely between endpoints. But, rather than try to break the encryption, an eavesdropper may impersonate a message recipient (during key exchange or by substituting his public key for the recipient's), so that messages are encrypted with a key known to the attacker. After decrypting the message, the snoop can then encrypt it with a key that they share with the actual recipient, or their public key in case of asymmetric systems, and send the message on again to avoid detection. This is known as a man-in-the-middle attack (MITM).[1][14]


Most end-to-end encryption protocols include some form of endpoint authentication specifically to prevent MITM attacks. For example, one could rely on certification authorities or a web of trust.[15] An alternative technique is to generate cryptographic hashes (fingerprints) based on the communicating users’ public keys or shared secret keys. The parties compare their fingerprints using an outside (out-of-band) communication channel that guarantees integrity and authenticity of communication (but not necessarily secrecy[citation needed]), before starting their conversation. If the fingerprints match, there is in theory, no man in the middle.[1]

When displayed for human inspection, fingerprints usually use some form of Binary-to-text encoding[citation needed]. These strings are then formatted into groups of characters for readability. Some clients instead display a natural language representation of the fingerprint.[16] As the approach consists of a one-to-one mapping between fingerprint blocks and words, there is no loss in entropy. The protocol may choose to display words in the user's native (system) language.[16] This can, however, make cross-language comparisons prone to errors.[17]

In order to improve localization, some protocols have chosen to display fingerprints as base 10 strings instead of more error prone hexadecimal or natural language strings.[18][17] An example of the base 10 fingerprint (called safety number in Signal and security code in WhatsApp) would be

 37345  35585  86758  07668
 05805  48714  98975  19432
 47272  72741  60915  64451

Modern messaging applications can also display fingerprints as QR codes that users can scan off each other's devices.[18]

Endpoint security[edit]

The end-to-end encryption paradigm does not directly address risks at the communications endpoints themselves. Each user's computer can still be hacked to steal his or her cryptographic key (to create a MITM attack) or simply read the recipients’ decrypted messages both in real time and from log files. Even the most perfectly encrypted communication pipe is only as secure as the mailbox on the other end.[1] Major attempts to increase endpoint security have been to isolate key generation, storage and cryptographic operations to a smart card such as Google's Project Vault.[19] However, since plaintext input and output are still visible to the host system, malware can monitor conversations in real time. A more robust approach is to isolate all sensitive data to a fully air gapped computer.[20] PGP has been recommended by experts for this purpose:

If I really had to trust my life to a piece of software, I would probably use something much less flashy — GnuPG, maybe, running on an isolated computer locked in a basement.

However, as Bruce Schneier points out, Stuxnet developed by US and Israel successfully jumped air gap and reached Natanz nuclear plant's network in Iran.[21] To deal with key exfiltration with malware, one approach is to split the Trusted Computing Base behind two unidirectionally connected computers that prevent either insertion of malware, or exfiltration of sensitive data with inserted malware.[22]


A backdoor is usually a secret method of bypassing normal authentication or encryption in a computer system, a product, or an embedded device, etc.[23] Companies may also willingly or unwillingly introduce backdoors to their software that help subvert key negotiation or bypass encryption altogether. In 2013, information leaked by Edward Snowden showed that Skype had a backdoor which allowed Microsoft to hand over their users' messages to the NSA despite the fact that those messages were officially end-to-end encrypted.[24][25]

Compliance and regulatory requirements for content inspection[edit]

While E2EE can offer privacy benefits that make it desirable in consumer-grade services, many businesses have to balanced these benefits with their regulatory requirements. For example, many organizations are subject to mandates that require them to be able to decrypt any communication between their employees or between their employees and third parties. [26] This might be needed for archival purposes, for inspection by Data Loss Prevention (DLP) systems, for litigation-related eDiscovery or for detection of malware and other threats in the data streams. For this reason, some enterprise-focused communications and informaiton protection systems might implement encryption in a way that ensures all transmissions are encrypted with the encryption being terminated at their internal systems (on-premises or cloud-based) so can have access to the information for inspection and processing.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "Hacker Lexicon: What Is End-to-End Encryption?". WIRED. 2014-11-25. Archived from the original on 23 December 2015. Retrieved 22 December 2015.
  2. ^ McLaughlin, Jenna (21 December 2015). "Democratic Debate Spawns Fantasy Talk on Encryption". The Intercept. Archived from the original on 23 December 2015.
  3. ^ Baran, Paul (1964). "IX. Security, Secrecy, and Tamper-Free Considerations. III. Some Fundamentals of Cryptography". On Distributed Communications. RAND corporation.
  4. ^ Moldal, L.; Jorgensen, T. (11 February 2003). End to end encryption in GSM, DECT and satellite networks using NSK200. IET. doi:10.1049/ic:20030013.
  5. ^ Murgatroyd, Brian (11 February 2003). End to end encryption in public safety TETRA networks. IET. doi:10.1049/ic:20030015.
  6. ^ "New chair for the SFPG". 2007.
  7. ^ Morquecho Martinez, Raul Alejandro (31 March 2016). Delivery of encryption keys in TETRA networks (PDF) (Master's Thesis). Aalto University.
  8. ^ Chris Alexander, Ian Avrum Goldberg (February 2007). "Improved User Authentication in Off-The-Record Messaging". Proceedings of the 2007 ACM workshop on Privacy in electronic society - WPES '07 (PDF). Proceedings of the 2007 ACM Workshop on Privacy in Electronic Society. pp. 41–47. doi:10.1145/1314333.1314340. ISBN 9781595938831. S2CID 17052562. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2016-02-27.
  9. ^ "End-to-End Encryption". EFF Surveillance Self-Defense Guide. Electronic Frontier Foundation. Archived from the original on 5 March 2016. Retrieved 2 February 2016.
  10. ^ "How to: Use OTR for Windows". EEF Surveillance Self-Defence Guide. Electronic Frontier Foundation. Archived from the original on 20 January 2016. Retrieved 2 February 2016.
  11. ^ Grauer, Yael. "Mr. Robot Uses ProtonMail, But It Still Isn't Fully Secure". WIRED. Archived from the original on 2017-03-09.
  12. ^ "Why Telegram's security flaws may put Iran's journalists at risk". Committee to Protect Journalists. 31 May 2016. Archived from the original on 19 August 2016. Retrieved 23 September 2016.
  13. ^ Hackett, Robert (21 May 2016). "Here's Why Privacy Savants Are Blasting Google Allo". Fortune. Time Inc. Archived from the original on 10 September 2016. Retrieved 23 September 2016.
  14. ^ Schneier, Bruce; Ferguson, Niels; Kohno, Tadayoshi (2010). Cryptography engineering : design principles and practical applications. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Pub., inc. p. 183. ISBN 978-0470474242.
  15. ^ "What is man-in-the-middle attack (MitM)? - Definition from WhatIs.com". IoT Agenda. Archived from the original on 5 January 2016. Retrieved 7 January 2016.
  16. ^ a b "pEp White Paper" (PDF). pEp Foundation Council. 18 July 2016. Archived (PDF) from the original on 1 October 2016. Retrieved 11 October 2016.
  17. ^ a b Marlinspike, Moxie (5 April 2016). "WhatsApp's Signal Protocol integration is now complete". Open Whisper Systems. Archived from the original on 10 October 2016. Retrieved 11 October 2016.
  18. ^ a b Budington, Bill (7 April 2016). "WhatsApp Rolls Out End-To-End Encryption to its Over One Billion Users". Deeplinks Blog. Electronic Frontier Foundation. Archived from the original on 12 September 2016. Retrieved 11 October 2016.
  19. ^ Julie Bort, Matt Weinberger "Google's Project Vault is a tiny computer for sending secret messages" Archived 2017-08-08 at the Wayback Machine, Business Insider, NYC May 29, 2015
  20. ^ Whonix Wiki "Air Gapped OpenPGP Key" Archived 2017-08-08 at the Wayback Machine
  21. ^ Bruce Schneier "Air Gaps" Archived 2017-06-09 at the Wayback Machine, Schneier on Security, October 11, 2013
  22. ^ "maqp/tfc". GitHub. Archived from the original on 31 March 2017. Retrieved 26 April 2018.
  23. ^ Eckersley, Peter; Portnoy, Erica (8 May 2017). "Intel's Management Engine is a security hazard, and users need a way to disable it". www.eff.org. Archived from the original on 6 March 2018. Retrieved 7 March 2018.
  24. ^ Goodin, Dan (20 May 2013). "Think your Skype messages get end-to-end encryption? Think again". Ars Technica. Archived from the original on 22 December 2015.
  25. ^ Greenwald, Glenn; MacAskill, Ewen; Poitras, Laura; Ackerman, Spencer; Rushe, Dominic (12 July 2013). "Microsoft handed the NSA access to encrypted messages". the Guardian. Archived from the original on 19 November 2015.
  26. ^ "Why GDPR Makes it Urgent to Scan Encrypted Traffic for Data Loss". SonicWall. 28 November 2017.

Further reading[edit]