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Why SMS Must Die

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The mobile texting standard turns 30 this year, and its insecurity and legacy features are holding the world back. Here’s why texting needs to go away ASAP.

A brief history of SMS

SMS stands for “Short Message Service”. It is a mobile phone text messaging standard supported on most mobile phones worldwide. It originated in Europe from 1984, although it only made its market debut in 1992. Yet SMS turns 30 this year, and it is well past its sell-by date.

While hundreds of millions of people use texting every day, in the United States we often hear about texting in the context of Apple and how the Messages app colors text message bubbles green, unlike the blue bubbles. But the problems with SMS go much deeper than that, as we will see below.

SMS is vulnerable to surveillance

SMS messages are not encrypted and mobile operators can view the content of each SMS message without needing special permission to do so. Carriers often keep a record of text messages for law enforcement purposes, and your text messages may be subject to subpoena in civil cases such as divorce. In addition, governments can collect and look through them with ease.

To solve this privacy problem, many people use proprietary Internet messaging apps like iMessage or Signal that use end-to-end encryption. With these services, the messages cannot be intercepted by the companies that run the messaging services (in most cases), and the messages go over Wi-Fi or your cellular data plan instead of the SMS network. Relying on texting makes everyone less private and secure.

SMS is not secure for 2FA

Two-factor authentication, or “2FA” for short, is a way to verify your identity by using two different verification methods simultaneously. For example, to log in to a website, you can enter a password and receive a code via an SMS sent to your mobile number.

While using SMS-based 2FA is better than not using 2FA at all, it has its issues. One of the main ones is that it shifts the burden of your account security to your mobile carrier. If someone knows your cell phone number and your social security number, they can potentially convince an employee of your mobile carrier to move your cell phone number to a new device so that they can receive your 2FA codes. It happened a little in the past.

Another issue with using SMS for 2FA is the same as noted above: SMS can be intercepted by governments and mobile carriers, which is a problem in countries where governments might use the information to target the online accounts of dissidents, which has happened. in iran.

Additionally, there are other privacy issues related to sharing your phone number, such as Facebook using it to help people find you. Instead of using SMS for 2FA, consider using an authenticator app instead, like Authy.

RELATED: How to set up Authy for two-factor authentication (and sync your codes between devices)

Text messages trap you in group chats

SMS provides no way to leave group chats or for the person who created the group to remove group members who may be misbehaving. Therefore, if you get stuck in a group text message, you are stuck unless everyone involved in the group stops responding to group text messages.

Proprietary text messaging services (such as Apple’s iMessage) typically provide ways to leave group chats, but these services aren’t industry-wide standards like SMS. Fortunately, the new standard RCS (which we’ll discuss below) solves this problem by including both the ability to leave group texts and moderate chat group membership. It’s a long-awaited upgrade that can only happen if we ditch all texting.

SMS costs extra money

Although many people have unlimited SMS plans these days, it’s not universal. Cellular carriers still make quite a bit of money by charging extra for texting, which is one of the reasons why alternative texting services on the Internet are so popular: they help you chat for free, which which is a reasonable request these days if you’re already paying yourself for a cell phone and cellular data plan.

RELATED: How to Eliminate SMS Charges and SMS for Free

SMS has been replaced by RCS

Since 2018, companies like Google have supported a successor standard to SMS called the Rich Communication Service, or “RCS” for short. RCS improves SMS by allowing higher resolution images, adding features like read receipts and indicating when the other person is typing a reply, and adding the ability to leave group chats and moderate messages. group text members, among other features.

In contrast, RCS is not encrypted by default (although Google has added its own encryption in Messages), and it still transmits through the carrier-controlled mobile phone network, so it is susceptible to interception and storage by carriers, governments, and law enforcement. Yet moving to RCS as a base would dramatically improve texting functionality for hundreds of millions of people around the world.

What should I use instead of SMS?

If you are a mobile operator or a mobile phone manufacturer, you must fully support RCS, which will allow SMS to finally be retired. At present, Apple is a particularly big deal, not supporting RCS on the iPhone. Google supports RCS with encryption in its Messages app, which can run on Android.

If you’re someone who wants maximum privacy in your SMS communications, we recommend using Signal, which has quite wide support. Hopefully in the future the industry will agree on a universal encrypted text messaging standard that can replace both SMS and RCS. But for now, it is no longer time to remove SMS. It was a good race, but times are changing, and so are we.