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Viber adds end-to-end encryption and hidden chats as the messaging app privacy wave grows

TechCrunch TechCrunch 19/04/2016 Ingrid Lunden

Following WhatsApp’s move to add end-to-end encryption to its platform, another big messaging company is joining the wave of apps turning on expanded privacy features. Viber — a messaging app with 711 million+ users — today is introducing end-to-end encryption for all messages and calls on its platform, along with a way to ‘hide’ chats on your account alongside its expanded deleting function. The company — founded in Israel and acquired by Japan’s Rakuten in 2014 — says the new services will be rolled out globally in the coming weeks, starting today in four countries where Viber centers most of its R&D: Brazil, Belarus, Israel and Thailand.

The new privacy features will work across Android, iOS, PCs and Mac desktops, with the encryption coming with the latest app update (6.0) and a reauthentication of the app (via QR Code) to turn the feature on.

Today, just about every big messaging app encrypts your messages in transit, but more secure features like end-to-end encryption mean that service providers cannot access the message at any point at all. Michael Shmilov, Viber’s COO, told TechCrunch that the company has been working on an end-to-end encryption feature for “years.”

So the fact that they had not launched it until now — with only a gradual rather than universal roll out, and just weeks after WhatsApp’s news — is both a sign of the times (what users are increasingly wanting and demanding these days) but also a mark of just how competitive the messaging app landscape remains today, where everyone is making sure that no rival has more features that it does. (More on that below.)

Viber’s encryption will come with varying levels of security, the company said, which will show up in the form of a color-coded lock on the right side of the screen.

A grey lock will mean the converation (voice or text) is fully encrypted. You can tap on the lock to confirm this.

Users also have the option of selecting a green lock, which will mean that you can additionally authenticate users before each conversation or to continually monitor them to make sure the users are verified. This option is useful if you’re talking to someone who might share an account with another person — say a child or partner.

A red lock, meanwhile, comes up if a trusted user does not pass re-authentication at his/her end. This could be because a device has changed, or because someone is trying to access the data via a man-in-the-middle attack, Viber notes, meaning that users need to re-authenticate for security and encryption to come back into effect.

Along with the encryption, there are some other privacy features getting added into the latest version of the app. Hidden chats will give users the ability to essentially “hide” certain conversations from their usage log, accessible only if you know a specified four-digit PIN. Why hide a chat in your app?

Again, this goes back to the idea that multiple people may be accessing your device, and subsequently your Viber account. One scenario may be your kids playing a game on your iPhone and switching over to messaging. But another might be hiding more explicit stuff from others. Caveat emptor.

The enhanced delete feature, meanwhile, has been in the app for a while, but is part of the company’s is a way for users to wipe a conversation not just on their end, but on that of the recipient’s phone. You can think of this as Viber’s answer to ephemeral messaging, but with a more manual approach.

Bots and enterprise services to come

The idea of adding more features that you are seeing in rival services is a theme that is big right now with all the messaging apps, which are all competing to be top dog for consumers who are balancing lots of apps but ultimately use only a handful with any regularity.

On that theme, Shmilov said that Viber will be, in the coming weeks and months, adding a lot more functionality to remain level with what Messenger and others are doing to transform their services from walled gardens into wider platforms. This will include a service for businesses, where companies will be able to use Viber to communicate with their customers as part of their CRM play; and also a platform to enable — yes! — bots on Viber. This comes in the wake of Viber expanding with lots of other services, such as public and group chats, as well as games.

The enterprise service — which sounds a lot like the business accounts feature for WhatsApp — will appear first, Shmilov said, and it will be one of the key ways that Rakuen hopes to integrate with its owner Rakuten, where merchants on its marketplace will be able to revert to Viber to have conversations with customers either before purchase or for after-sales support. “We are working with Rakuten on this,” he said, “interacting with merchants who sell on the platform. In a couple of months we will roll this out with partners, working with their CRM software but also directly with companies.”

While others like WhatsApp and Twitter are also hoping to expand their services with business accounts for customer service, this is not so much a me-too feature as it is something that makes a lot of sense: in this case, if you’re a business you don’t want to have to ask your customers to download a new messaging app just to interact; you would like to converse on the platform that your customer is already using. In that sense, smart companies will make it possible to speak on all the major platforms — much like publishers that give users an array of widgets to share stories to a variety of social networks.

As for the bots, these sound very similar to what Facebook is now offering in Messenger (with hiccups), and they are likely to start making their way to market in Q3. While Facebook’s Messenger is based around a lot of machine learning and AI that the company is building in-house by way of its acquisition of Wit.ai, it looks like Viber is opting for an API to run the bots, but in a way that potentially incorporates other assistants rather than building tech in-house.

“There are a lot of AI-based solutions such as Google’s and Microsoft’s Cortana,” Shmilov said. “We are developing a strong API that will enable bot-based solutions on Viber on top of those. Developers will be able to use these APIs to integrate what they want. There are already some interesting scenarios coming up,” he said of the internal tests that the company is running. “This is only the beginning of how messaging will work.”

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