Plausible Deniability in Threema



Threema’s private chat feature is worse than useless and desperately needs plausible deniability. The hidden chat feature must be implemented in a way that allows the user to plausibly deny that the a private chat actually exists, up to the point to unlock the application and “prove” it.

In the current implementation of threema, the following problems exist:

Problem 1: One Passcode

Threema uses the same passcode to unlock the application user interface and to show private chats. The problem here is that this only one security token, that once revealed basically renders the remaining safeguards null.

Problem 2; Show Private Chats Leaks Information

The “Show Private Chats” divulges the current state of the application. First this user interface element is only visible when there are private chats. This leaks the information that there is more to get.

Problem 3: Contact List Leaks Information

When private chats are hidden, you can find out with which contacts private chats are in progress, by “starting a new chat” with them. This will automatically show the password prompt for the private chat.

Problem 4: Message Notification Leaks Information

Although notifications can be occluded or disabled, the fact that a notification was present, but there are no new messages hints at the existence of private chats.

I think the developers of threema are using the wrong threat model. The current implementation only protects you when someone picks up your unlocked phone. It is true that you don’t give your passcode to random strangers, but in a relationship reveal of passwords under duress is the normal state of affairs. And honestly, that is the only scenario I know where I would want to use private chats.

A functional implementation of private chats needs the following properties:

Property 1: Safe Mode

The application needs a safe mode, that is a mode in which private chats are hidden. In safe mode the application should behave normally and behave as if no hidden chats exists. This can either be a specially prepare mode or a normal mode of operation of the application.

Property 1b: Reveal of the Safe Mode Credentials Grants no Further Privileges

“Honney, here is my password, go see for yourself”, needs to be an option. Safe mode and the credentials to access it should possible to divulge “under duress”.

Property 2: New Chats Can be Initiated with Hidden Private Chats

Is a private chat hidden, then it should be possible to initiate a new chat with that contact. This ensures that it impossible to probe the contact list for hidden chats.

Property 3: New Private Chats Can be Created Even With Existing Ones

Is a private chat hidden, a newly created chat should be able to be hidden, even though a different hidden chat with that contact exists. This ensures that the existence of a hidden chat can not be revealed by creating and hiding the chat.

Property 4: Is a Second Chat Initiated With a Contact, it Must be Obvious

Two apps operating in safe mode, with a hidden private chat existing between them, should behave as normal. But no matter of the private chat is hidden or visible on the receiving end, it should be obvious that it is a new second chat, yet only if you know that a private chat exists. This could be merely by the fact that it really is a new chat, with no previous messages or a obvious “Alice wants to chat with you” opening message.

Property 5: Notifications are only Emitted for Visible Chats

The application should only emit notifications for chats that are currently visible. This removes the hint at a hidden chat, when a notification comes in, but no new messages are visible. But this should be optionally, since most probably can live with this flaw.

A reasonably simple implementation could be as follows:

The application has one unlock password, this is the safe mode password. Chats can be set to private and an additional password can be set. This password also acts as password to unlock the application and when that password is used, all chats with that password are shown. This allows to have multiple sets of visible chats, depending on the password used. A requirement to implement property 2 and 3, needs to be that you can have multiple chats per contact, even multiple private chats, with different passwords associated.

I would really like to see a sensible implementation of private chats in threema and hope the developers agree with my assertions.