The Drawbacks of SMS and Why It's Time to Consider Other Options
Technological advancements are there to simplify our lives. But they often complicate things. Simple advancements can often come with inherent flaws that unearth complicated problems for the end consumer. The relationship between technology on the internet and safety or privacy concerns has become a worrisome dynamic. The security of your SMS messages is one area where technology that once seemed bulletproof is open to all sorts of vulnerabilities.
SMS messaging (also known as Short Messaging Services) is quickly becoming an unsafe method of communication for anyone concerned about safety, security, and privacy. Private messaging without end-to-end encryption is more open to interception by criminals, hackers, and governments. This is why SMS messaging isn’t really private. Many who are concerned about safety are realizing there are better alternatives to SMS messaging. Apps like Signal and WhatsApp are giving consumers better options for more secure messaging while also being packed with user-friendly features. Despite safer and more secure options available today, many are still stuck using SMS for a variety of reasons.
What is SMS?
SMS is the most popular form of text messaging, the type of messaging you see on most mobile phones. It’s a standardized communication protocol used to send short, text-based messages from phone to phone. Even though we use it today, the technology was born decades ago.
SMS messaging often does not require an internet connection to send. How? Your SMS message gets transmitted from your phone to the nearest cell tower. The cell tower acts as an intermediary between your mobile device and an SMS Center. The SMS Center forwards the SMS message to another cell tower near the mobile device to which you sent the SMS. Then the cell tower sends your SMS message to this device.
When people use the phrase “text message,” they are referring to SMS. Why? Because SMS is text-based, which is in contrast to MMS. MMS, also known as Multimedia Messaging Service, is primarily used for sending multimedia content like images and audio. Text-based SMS is based on characters and this form of messaging comes with the signature 160-character limit. SMS messages can also consist of emojis which are part of the allowed character in an SMS message. This is why you can send a smiley face in an SMS as an emoji. While MMS is clearly more functional for today’s media-rich world, many still rely on SMS because it’s more efficient and costs less if you're only sending texts.
Why does SMS messaging present a danger?
SMS is not secure because the messages are simply not end-to-end encrypted. When messages are not end-to-end encrypted, it means their contents can be viewed by various entities. Remember how sending an SMS message works? That same process is how security and privacy issues crop up. Your cell carrier provider can view the messages you send and receive. In certain situations, law enforcement and criminals alike can also access your messages. Most cellular providers store your messages for a predetermined amount of time. They will also store the metadata for longer periods. The metadata refers to what numbers you messaged and what numbers messaged you. This data can be easily recovered by law enforcement. With end-to-end encryption, only you and the person with whom you're messaging the contents of your messages are able to access them.
To cellular providers, law enforcement, governments, and cunning criminals, your SMS messages are about as private as a book in a library. This is problematic as your SMS messages contain private information, PIN codes, personal details, and more compromising information. This has obviously caused a lot of scrutiny and suspicion for even the most innocent phone users who simply want to remain private and secure. After all, everyone has something to hide. We don't want our entire lives leaked to the public. Another worrying aspect is that data leaked from SMS messages is being sold to third parties by cellular providers.
Until SMS messaging is replaced by something better, we are stuck with security issues. It appears that SMS messaging is set to be replaced by RCS (also known as Rich Communication Services). This will present a unique change in how we send messages and will offer more security and privacy. RCS will also come with a number of features that plain SMS does not offer. As the name suggests, RCS will allow rich media content (videos, images, GIFs, and stickers) to be shared between devices. Additionally, RCS will outshine SMS with the addition of read receipts, typing indication, group chats with group file transfers, and a reliance on mobile data or Wi-Fi for communications. Some clients like Google have even enabled end-to-end encryption for their devices. But, it’s not going to be a perfect solution.
If your SMS messages are intercepted, you may deal with issues that go beyond privacy concerns. This may leave many individuals and organizations open to security issues like identity theft, private information extortion, cyberattacks, and more. With these concerns in mind, new solutions have cropped up over the last few years. OTT, also known as Over-The-Top, refers to the type of messaging apps that bypass (or go over) legacy styles of communication like SMS. If the aforementioned dangers of SMS seem like a formidable threat, then it’s time to consider OTT applications as a primary messaging method.
What’s unique about OTT messaging applications?
OTT messaging applications do not come standard on any device in most cases. You will need to download whatever OTT messaging application you prefer. After downloading, OTT apps (unlike SMS messaging) will require a connection to the Internet much like any other app. The key benefit of using OTT apps is security and privacy. There are, however, attractive features unique to each OTT messaging app that offers more complete options than simple SMS texting.
What are the best SMS alternatives?
What are some of the most secure messaging applications available today? If privacy and security are important to your life, consider the following end-to-end encrypted applications.
iMessage: Apple’s end-to-end encrypted messaging service featuring the iconic blue chat bubbles.
Facebook Messenger: Facebook’s messaging function that features an option to enable end-to-end encryption.
WhatsApp: One of the most popular messaging apps with a global presence.
Snapchat: A messaging app that features end-to-end encrypted, disappearing photo and video messaging.
Telegram: A feature-rich, cross-platform end-to-end encrypted messaging app capable of video calling, group chats, file sharing, and more.
Signal: A messaging app that comes with advanced privacy-preserving technology and plenty of features to keep users happy.
*The opinions reflected in this article are the sole opinions of the author and do not reflect any official positions or claims by Acer Inc.
About Alex Clark: Alex is a contributing writer for Acer. Alex is a Texas-based writer and B2B email marketing strategist specializing in helping technology brands connect to their customers. He has lived all over Asia and has consulted with business clients in numerous industries to grow their brands.