(Edit 2023-05-10: This has now launched
for a subset of Twitter users. The code that existed to notify users that device identities had changed does not appear to have been enabled - as a result, in its current form, Twitter can absolutely MITM conversations and read your messages)
Elon Musk appeared on an interview with Tucker Carlson last month, with one of the topics being the fact that Twitter could be legally compelled to hand over users' direct messages to government agencies since they're held on Twitter's servers and aren't encrypted. Elon talked about how they were in the process of implementing proper encryption for DMs that would prevent this - "You could put a gun to my head and I couldn't tell you. That's how it should be."
tl;dr - in the current implementation, while Twitter could
subvert the end-to-end nature of the encryption, it could not do so without users being notified. If any user involved in a conversation were to ignore that notification, all
messages in that conversation (including ones sent in the past) could then be decrypted. This isn't ideal, but it still seems like an improvement over having no encryption at all. More technical discussion follows.
For context: all information about Twitter's implementation here has been derived from reverse engineering version 9.86.0 of the Android client and 9.56.1 of the iOS client (the current versions at time of writing), and the feature hasn't yet launched. While it's certainly possible that there could be major changes in the protocol between now launch, Elon has asserted that they plan to launch the feature this week so it's plausible that this reflects what'll ship.
For it to be impossible for Twitter to read DMs, they need to not only be encrypted, they need to be encrypted with a key that's not available to Twitter. This is what's referred to as "end-to-end encryption", or e2ee - it means that the only components in the communication chain that have access to the unencrypted data are the endpoints. Even if the message passes through other systems (and even if it's stored
on other systems), those systems do not have access to the keys that would be needed to decrypt the data.
End-to-end encrypted messengers were initially popularised by Signal
, but the Signal protocol has since been incorporated into WhatsApp
and is probably much more widely used there. Millions of people per day are sending messages to each other that pass through servers controlled by third parties, but those third parties are completely unable to read the contents of those messages. This is the scenario that Elon described, where there's no degree of compulsion that could cause the people relaying messages to and from people to decrypt those messages afterwards.
But for this to be possible, both ends of the communication need to be able to encrypt messages in a way the other end can decrypt. This is usually performed using AES
, a well-studied encryption algorithm with no known significant weaknesses. AES is a form of what's referred to as a symmetric encryption, one where encryption and decryption are performed with the same key. This means that both ends need access to that key, which presents us with a bootstrapping problem. Until a shared secret is obtained, there's no way to communicate securely, so how do we generate that shared secret? A common mechanism for this is something called Diffie Hellman key exchange
, which makes use of asymmetric encryption. In asymmetric encryption, an encryption key can be split into two components - a public key and a private key. Both devices involved in the communication combine their private key and the other party's public key to generate a secret that can only be decoded with access to the private key. As long as you know the other party's public key, you can now securely generate a shared secret with them. Even a third party with access to all the public keys won't be able to identify this secret. Signal makes use of a variation of Diffie-Hellman called Extended Triple Diffie-Hellman
that has some desirable properties, but it's not strictly
necessary for the implementation of something that's end-to-end encrypted.
Although it was rumoured
that Twitter would make use of the Signal protocol, and in fact there are vestiges of code in the Twitter client that still reference Signal, recent versions of the app have shipped with an entirely different approach that appears to have been written from scratch. It seems simple enough. Each device generates an asymmetric keypair using the NIST P-256 elliptic curve, along with a device identifier. The device identifier and the public half of the key are uploaded to Twitter using a new API endpoint called /1.1/keyregistry/register
. When you want to send an encrypted DM to someone, the app calls /1.1/keyregistry/extract_public_keys
with the IDs of the users you want to communicate with, and gets back a list of their public keys. It then looks up the conversation ID (a numeric identifier that corresponds to a given DM exchange - for a 1:1 conversation between two people it doesn't appear that this ever changes, so if you DMed an account 5 years ago and then DM them again now from the same account, the conversation ID will be the same) in a local database to retrieve a conversation key. If that key doesn't exist yet, the sender generates a random one. The message is then encrypted with the conversation key using AES in GCM mode, and the conversation key is then put through Diffie-Hellman with each of the recipients' public device keys. The encrypted message is then sent to Twitter along with the list of encrypted conversation keys. When each of the recipients' devices receives the message it checks whether it already has a copy of the conversation key, and if not performs its half of the Diffie-Hellman negotiation to decrypt the encrypted conversation key. One it has the conversation key it decrypts it and shows it to the user.
What would happen if Twitter changed the registered public key associated with a device to one where they held the private key, or added an entirely new device to a user's account? If the app were to just happily send a message with the conversation key encrypted with that new key, Twitter would be able to decrypt that and obtain the conversation key. Since the conversation key is tied to the conversation, not any given pair of devices, obtaining the conversation key means you can then decrypt every message in that conversation, including ones sent before the key was obtained.
(An aside: Signal and WhatsApp make use of a protocol called Sesame
which involves additional secret material that's shared between every device a user owns, hence why you have to do that QR code dance whenever you add a new device to your account. I'm grossly over-simplifying how clever the Signal approach is here, largely because I don't understand the details of it myself. The Signal protocol uses something called the Double Ratchet Algorithm
to implement the actual message encryption keys in such a way that even if someone were able to successfully impersonate a device they'd only be able to decrypt messages sent after that point even if they had encrypted copies of every previous message in the conversation)
How's this avoided? Based on the UI that exists in the iOS version of the app, in a fairly straightforward way - each user can only have a single device that supports encrypted messages. If the user (or, in our hypothetical, a malicious Twitter) replaces the device key, the client will generate a notification. If the user pays attention to that notification and verifies with the recipient through some out of band mechanism that the device has actually been replaced, then everything is fine. But, if any
participant in the conversation ignores this warning, the holder of the subverted key can obtain the conversation key and decrypt the entire history of the conversation. That's strictly worse than anything based on Signal, where such impersonation would simply not work, but even in the Twitter case it's not possible for someone to silently subvert the security.
So when Elon says Twitter wouldn't be able to decrypt these messages even if someone held a gun to his head, there's a condition applied to that - it's true as long as nobody fucks up. This is clearly better than the messages just not being encrypted at all in the first place, but overall it's a weaker solution than Signal. If you're currently using Twitter DMs, should you turn on encryption? As long as the limitations aren't too limiting, definitely! Should you use this in preference to Signal or WhatsApp? Almost certainly not. This seems like a genuine incremental improvement, but it'd be easy to interpret what Elon says as providing stronger guarantees than actually exist.