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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.
In many messaging systems, including email and many chat networks, messages pass through intermediaries and are stored by a third party, from which they are retrieved by the recipient. Even if the messages are encrypted, they are typically only encrypted 'in transit', and are stored in decrypted form by the third party. 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 persons living under repressive governments, whistleblowing, mass surveillance, businesses whose reputation depends on its ability to protect third party data, negotiations and communications that are important enough to have a risk of targeted 'hacking', and where sensitive subjects such as health, sexuality and information about minors are involved.
End-to-end encryption is intended to prevent data being read or secretly modified, other than by the true sender and recipient(s). The messages are encrypted by the sender but the third party does not have a means to decrypt them, and stores them encrypted. The recipient retrieves the encrypted data and decrypts it themselves.
Because no third parties can decipher the data being communicated or stored, for example, companies that use end-to-end encryption are unable to hand over texts of their customers' messages to the authorities.
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).
As of 2016, typical server-based communications systems do not include end-to-end encryption. These systems can only guarantee the protection of communications between clients and servers, meaning that users have to trust the third parties who are running the servers with the original texts. End-to-end encryption is regarded as safer because it reduces the number of parties who might be able to interfere or break the encryption. In the case of instant messaging, users may use a third-party client to implement an end-to-end encryption scheme over an otherwise non-E2EE protocol.
Some non-E2EE systems, such as Lavabit and Hushmail, have described themselves as offering "end-to-end" encryption when they did not. Other systems, such as Telegram and Google Allo, have been criticized for not having end-to-end encryption, which they offer, enabled by default.
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. However, the term "end-to-end encryption" is often used as a synonym for client-side encryption.
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.
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. 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), before starting their conversation. If the fingerprints match, there is in theory, no man in the middle.
When displayed for human inspection, fingerprints are usually encoded into hexadecimal strings. These strings are then formatted into groups of characters for readability. For example, a 128-bit MD5 fingerprint would be displayed as follows:
Some protocols display natural language representations of the hexadecimal blocks. 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. This can, however, make cross-language comparisons prone to errors. In order to improve localization, some protocols have chosen to display fingerprints as base 10 strings instead of hexadecimal or natural language strings. Modern messaging applications can also display fingerprints as QR codes that users can scan off each other's devices.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
A backdoor is usually a secret method of bypassing normal authentication or encryption in a computer system, a product, or an embedded device, etc. 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.