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Improving Non-Experts' Understanding of End-to-End Encryption: An Exploratory Study

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Abstract and Figures

End-to-end encryption (E2EE) can effectively protect the privacy of online communication and has been adopted by several popular messaging apps. However, prior research indicates that many users have difficulty using E2EE tools correctly and confidently, as well as recognizing their security benefits, in part because of incorrect mental models. This paper takes a first step toward providing high-level, roughly correct information about end-to-end encryption to non-experts. In a lab study, participants (n=25) were asked about their understanding of E2EE before and after a tutorial we created, as well as which information they found most useful and surprising. Overall, participants’ understanding of the benefits and limitations of E2EE improved. They found information about confidentiality, risks and weaknesses most useful, surprising, and compelling to pass on to others. Some confusion about integrity and authenticity remained. The results provide insight into how to structure new educational materials for E2EE.
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Improving Non-Experts’ Understanding of End-to-End Encryption: An
Exploratory Study
Wei Bai, Michael Pearson, Patrick Gage Kelley, and Michelle L. Mazurek
University of Maryland, Google
Abstract—End-to-end encryption (E2EE) can effectively pro-
tect the privacy of online communication and has been
adopted by several popular messaging apps. However, prior
research indicates that many users have difficulty using
E2EE tools correctly and confidently, as well as recognizing
their security benefits, in part because of incorrect mental
models. This paper takes a first step toward providing
high-level, roughly correct information about end-to-end
encryption to non-experts. In a lab study, participants (n=25)
were asked about their understanding of E2EE before and
after a tutorial we created, as well as which information
they found most useful and surprising. Overall, participants’
understanding of the benefits and limitations of E2EE im-
proved. They found information about confidentiality, risks
and weaknesses most useful, surprising, and compelling
to pass on to others. Some confusion about integrity and
authenticity remained. The results provide insight into how
to structure new educational materials for E2EE.
1. Introduction
End-to-end encryption (E2EE) is the best-known way
to protect users’ digital communications, as it prevents
service providers as well as unassociated third parties from
reading messages. In recent years, several popular messag-
ing apps have adopted end-to-end encryption, either by
default (WhatsApp, iMessage [1], [2]) or as an optional
feature (Facebook Messenger, Telegram [3], [4]). As a
result, after decades of use only in niche applications and
communities, E2EE is now readily available and used by
millions or even billions of users.
With this increased adoption, researchers have inves-
tigated how non-experts are using E2EE today. They have
found many users do not understand the benefits and
limitations that E2EE affords, and as a result may not
use E2EE in the most secure fashion [5]–[10]. These dif-
ficulties are not only caused by poor usability or interface
design; rather, they occur, in large part, because users
hold what security experts would think of as “incorrect”
mental models of E2EE. While users are not wrong to
hold these mental models, this can lead to decisions or
patterns of use that may put their security at greater risk
than they realize. For example, users may wrongly believe
other communications approaches (such as standard text
messaging) are more secure than E2EE messaging, or
may believe all secure systems are inevitably futile in
the face of skilled adversaries, reducing the use of E2EE
where it might provide important protections [6], [10].
Additionally, users may underestimate valid risks, such as
vulnerability to malware at endpoints.
Ideally we would design systems where “users should
not have to care about security” [10], and/or that —
in interface if not in underlying technical operation —
would “more closely align with users’ existing mental
models” [8]. However, both are likely to prove difficult
for E2EE systems (at least in the near future), as existing
models are quite far from the inherent technical char-
acteristics of encryption systems, leading to significant
misalignment. Instead, enabling users to make appropriate
decisions about how to meet their privacy and security
needs may require at least somewhat shifting mental mod-
els, perhaps via better explanations and education [8].
While it is neither possible nor desirable to ask all or
even many users to become cryptography experts, we can
and should work to improve mental models — particularly
functional mental models that focus on how a technology
is used rather than how it works [11]. This could help
non-expert users understand basic threat models and mit-
igations, so that they can make informed and appropriate
decisions about their own communication choices, such as
what tools to use and how to use E2EE correctly within
these tools [12].
Although some educational resources about E2EE ex-
ist [13], [14], they are often aimed at high-risk popula-
tions, such as journalists and activists. Also, users often
need to take the initiative to visit these websites and
access these resources. Our intent is different. We seek
to provide non-high-risk, non-expert populations useful
information in small doses, directly, while they are using
E2EE tools. In this work we take an initial step toward
this goal by exploring how to explain high-level E2EE
concepts to non-experts, with a focus on what they find
most important and surprising. In a qualitative lab study
(n=25), participants were shown a short tutorial containing
one or more modules explaining aspects of E2EE: a high-
level overview; details about the kinds of surveillance risks
E2EE can and cannot protect against; a debunking of com-
mon misconceptions; and a more detailed but only lightly
technical description of how E2EE works. Before and
after the tutorial, participants answered questions about
their understanding of E2EE and its security properties.
We also asked participants to provide feedback on the
tutorial contents, to critique E2EE explanations drawn
from popular messaging tools’ current documentation,
and to design a short explanation highlighting the most
important aspects of E2EE.
Our goal was not to evaluate our exemplar tutorials
as artifacts, but rather to investigate how users respond to
different educational approaches, what aspects of E2EE
they find most important or most surprising, and which
elements they believe should be emphasized in future
educational interventions. While we do not expect many
people will voluntarily complete even short formal tutori-
als like the ones we tested, we hope that insights from our
study can be used to inform the design of a variety of nat-
urally encountered educational efforts, such as interstitial
informational screens within messaging apps, on-boarding
flows, or help materials.
We find our tutorials effectively convey several high-
level security properties of E2EE, including potential
weaknesses at endpoints. They also correct existing mis-
conceptions about who has access to messages in transit.
Our risks module effectively conveys the relative risk of
E2EE and non-E2EE communications, but our miscon-
ceptions module does not effectively address confusion
about integrity and authenticity. As might be expected,
the technical description we provided somewhat increased
understanding, for some participants, but also added to
misunderstanding for others, and was not considered par-
ticularly important or useful by our participants. The
critique activities, meanwhile, revealed several points of
confusion within existing messages. Overall, participants’
responses suggest that emphasizing confidentiality, clearly
conveying the limitations of E2EE protections, and re-
ducing complexity are the most important properties for
providing effective education in this space.
2. Related Work
2.1. Mental Models and Education for E2EE
Across many prior studies, mental models have been
found to be fundamental in influencing users’ decisions to
(not) adopt encrypted communication tools. For example,
users were reluctant to use encrypted email because they
felt they “have nothing to hide” [15], and viewed routine
encryption as paranoid and socially undesirable [16].
DeLuca et al. found users did not prioritize security
and privacy when selecting messaging apps [5]. Relatedly,
Abu-Salma et al. found “usability is not the primary obsta-
cle to adoption” [6]; instead, fragmented user bases, lack
of interoperability, and limited knowledge about security
were significant barriers.” The researchers also found that
users held misconceptions about E2EE — e.g., believing
that secure communications tools are inevitably futile in
the face of powerful hackers — which hinder adoption.
Wu et al. explored users’ (mis)conceptions of encryption
in depth, identifying four mental models [8]. Krombholz
et al. identified key characteristics of encryption miscon-
ceptions via a series of drawing tasks [17].
Misconceptions found in these studies imply that im-
proving mental models could support adoption of secure
messaging tools. To date, little research has explored
how to successfully do this. By comparing users’ men-
tal models before and after WhatsApp introduced E2EE,
Dechand et al. found that WhatsApp’s security info mes-
sages and generic media coverage were not effective [10].
Tong et al. tested a lock-and-key metaphor for public
and private keys [18], with preliminary results indicating
some improved understanding. We adopt this lock-and-
key metaphor in a portion of our tutorial, described be-
low. Demjaha et al. explored a variety of different short
metaphors explaining the concept of E2EE but found that
none were particularly successful [19]. Other work has
included brief user-education materials as part of a larger
study, but did not focus on how to design these materials
effectively [7], [20]–[22]. There exist some educational
resources about E2EE [13], [14], but they often target
high-risk populations, such as journalists and activists;
further, many users not in high-risk categories may lack
the motivation to visit these websites and read the re-
sources. Our work is among the first to explore educational
materials for non-high-risk non-experts in a systematic
way, and our qualitative approach allows us to explore
how different aspects of an educational intervention may
influence users’ mental models.
2.2. Design Principles for Educational Material
We designed our tutorial using established educa-
tional principles and methods. Risk communication has
been shown to be useful for conveying key points both
in computer security generally [23]–[25] and for secure
communication tools specifically [8], [12]. Therefore, we
include risk communication as a module in our tutorial.
The principle of contiguity states that “the effective-
ness of multimedia instruction increases when words and
pictures are presented contiguously (rather than isolated
from one another)” [26]. We designed our tutorial to
include illustrative slides paired with narration and used
pilot testing to refine the balance between visual con-
tent and written content. In line with recommendations
to use first- and second-person point-of-view and make
educational materials conversational [27], our examples of
encrypted communication are framed to actively involve
the participant as a sender/receiver.
Learning science also recommends giving learners op-
portunities to stop and think about what they have learned,
as well as leveraging learning-by-doing (“knowledge and
skills are acquired and strengthened through actual prac-
tice”) [28], [29]. We incorporated these ideas by asking
participants repeatedly to reflect on what they had learned
in the tutorial, to consider what they would want to share
with family and friends, and had them participate in a
design task to exercise their new knowledge.
3. Methods
We designed an in-person study to explore the process
of explaining E2EE to non-experts from several different
angles. Participation took on average 63 minutes.
Goals and Non-Goals Our goal in this study was to ex-
plore the most important and useful information to convey
to users when possible, as well as to obtain preliminary
data about how best to convey that information. We hope
the results can be useful in developing future educational
materials and integrating them into apps and workflows,
perhaps as short messages. As a first step, we developed
an in-person, researcher-led tutorial as a design probe. Our
goal was not to develop an optimal in-person tutorial, nor
to evaluate our tutorial as an artifact in itself.
3.1. Study Procedure
We designed a qualitative study to investigate how
participants’ understanding could be influenced by intro-
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Figure 1. Study procedure flow chart.
ducing E2EE. Each participant was shown a short tutorial.
Before and after the tutorial, participants were asked to
answer a set of quiz questions regarding their perceptions
of E2EE, then interviewed about their answers. We next
asked them to comment on our tutorial, to critique some
existing E2EE explanations from real apps, and to design
a short message introducing E2EE in their own words.
Figure 1outlines our study procedure.
Initial Quiz After agreeing to our consent form, par-
ticipants completed a closed-item quiz on paper to assess
their understanding of E2EE. The quiz asked participants
to imagine using a hypothetical E2EE messaging app,
Textlight, to send a message to their friend Bob. We used a
fictional app so that answers would not reflect participants’
impressions of existing companies.
The questions explored participants’ understanding of
security properties of E2EE. To address confidentiality,
we asked how difficult it would be for various adversaries
to read the content of the message, including: hackers
who could intercept communications, hackers who could
infiltrate the app company, hackers who had previously
installed malware on users’ phones, ISPs, and government
agencies. We also included two questions addressing in-
tegrity and authenticity, asking how difficult it would be
for a third party to modify a message or send a response
impersonating the recipient. All questions included five
possible answers on a scale from “very easy” to “very
difficult.” Finally, we asked about the relative security of
different communications tools, including SMS text mes-
saging, mobile phone calls, email, and instant messaging
apps with and without E2EE. After they completed the
quiz, we asked participants to explain their reasoning for
each answer. The quiz questions are listed in the appendix.
Tutorial and Second Quiz We then presented to par-
ticipants our short tutorial, including narration and accom-
panying PowerPoint slides. After the tutorial, participants
completed the same quiz questions again and were asked
to explain why they had (not) changed their answers. We
positioned this second quiz before any further study tasks
so that answer changes would reflect the effect of the
tutorial and not priming from other questions.
Tutorial Feedback We next asked participants to eval-
uate our tutorial, including how difficult it was to un-
derstand, how informative it was, and which parts they
(dis)liked. We further asked participants to select the most
and least surprising and important information, as well
as the part of the tutorial they would most want their
friends and family to learn about. These questions were
designed in part to learn what did and did not work about
our tutorial specifically. More importantly, however, this
qualitative feedback was designed to allow us to develop
hypotheses about how to best structure short messages that
can be integrated into messaging tools without requiring
users to seek out additional, extended training.
Critique Next, participants were shown two short texts
(from six options) introducing E2EE. These were taken
from app descriptions, official websites, and/or whitepa-
pers of existing secure communication tools, including
LINE [30], WhatsApp [1], Telegram [4], Viber [31],
Threema [32], and ProtonMail [33]. We refer to these
as Msg1–Msg6, in order. Each participant was presented
only two to avoid fatigue. To avoid branding effects, we
replaced the names of all six apps with Textlight. The
example drawn from LINE (Msg1) follows; the other
messages are provided in the appendix.
Letter Sealing is a feature that provides end-to-end
encryption (E2EE) for chat room messages. E2EE is
a communication system designed so that messages
saved on our servers are encrypted and cannot be
read by anyone except the sender and receiver of the
message. Letter Sealing uses unique, user-specific en-
cryption keys which allow users to safely and securely
send messages to one another.
We asked participants to give their opinions about both
messages, mark phrases or sentences that explained E2EE
clearly (or not), describe what else they might like these
messages to tell them, and choose which message they
preferred. This task had three goals: (a) to gain insight
into perceptions of existing short educational messages;
(b) to indirectly observe what they had retained from the
tutorial and/or any remaining misconceptions, as revealed
by their reactions to the messages, and (c) to provide some
setup for the subsequent design task.
Design Finally, participants were asked to design a short
message (200 words) about E2EE intended to teach others.
Like the Critique task, this task had concurrent goals: to
gain insight into how to design future short educational
interventions, and to observe how participants were able
to put knowledge gained from the tutorial into action.
Participants’ messages are included in the appendix.
3.2. Tutorial Design
One critical question concerns which pieces of knowl-
edge are most important and useful to impart to users.
While there are many potentially relevant aspects of E2EE
we could try to explain [6]–[8], [10], [12], [18], [19], [22]–
[25], we limited our investigation to only a few aspects
for feasibility with our qualitative, exploratory method.
Specifically, we developed four modules: a basic
overview, a module focused on risks E2EE can and cannot
protect against, one explicitly debunking misconceptions
reported in prior literature, and a more detailed (but
not overly technical) description of how E2EE works
cryptographically. The first three modules intend to cue
functional mental models [11], which people could use
to make decisions about how to protect themselves. The
final module is intended to examine whether some very
lightweight structural information [11] could help to sup-
port the functional models we primarily aim at. We
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Figure 2. Example visualization used in the tutorial, depicting how an E2EE message is sent from “Your Phone” to “Bob’s Phone”.
mentioned E2EE could protect authenticity, but did not
include how to perform authentication ceremonies, which
is both platform-specific and in large part a usability
issue. We leave whether and how improved mental models
contribute to successfully performing ceremonies to future
work. In order to explore the usefulness of the information
contained in the different modules, we showed each partic-
ipant one or more modules. All participants saw the basic
overview, then zero to two other modules (see Section 4).
Figure 2shows an example from the tutorial.
Overview The basic overview briefly mentions con-
fidentiality: “with E2EE, only you and your intended
recipients can see the messages.” We also briefly describe
how E2EE protects integrity and authenticity, as well as
endpoint weaknesses such as shoulder surfing, message
forwarding, and malware on user phones.
Risks The risks module describes in detail risks to
users when not using E2EE. We frame these risks by first
illustrating, at a high level, how messages transit through
ISPs and messaging app companies on their way to the
recipient. This illustration aligns with those presented in
prior work [7], [22], with the addition of ISPs. (As we
will see below, the role of ISPs in the messaging process
proved surprising to many participants.)
We first highlighted many possible risks of unpro-
tected communication within this ecosystem: interference
at endpoints, at the ISP, at the messaging app server, and
in transit in between. We then discussed how point-to-
point encryption (e.g., webmail over TLS) could mitigate
some of these risks, before finally detailing the additional
mitigations provided by E2EE.
Misconceptions The misconceptions module focused
on three misconceptions or misunderstandings identified
in prior work. First, prior research has identified a belief
that encryption is “futile” because no privacy mechanism
could be strong enough to protect from powerful attackers
like governments or highly skilled hackers, especially if
the mechanics of the encryption system are known to the
attacker [6], [8], [10]. We presented this misconception
and then briefly explained the proven strengths of (prop-
erly configured) encryption algorithms against even well
resourced and knowledgeable attackers.
Second, many users believe that standard audio calls
and SMS messages are more secure than E2EE messaging
apps [5], [6], [10]. We clarified that E2EE messaging
is the most secure of these options. Finally, some users
mistakenly believe that authenticity and integrity are con-
trolled entirely by username and password security [6].
We explained that even if usernames and passwords are
not compromised, without encryption attackers may be
able to tamper with messages or impersonate other users.
Crypto Knowledge Our final module explains public
key encryption using a lock-and-key metaphor adapted
from Tong et al. [18]. Participants were told that at app
installation, a public lock and private key pair would be
created on their phones. All users’ public locks would be
stored at the app company, referencing the key-directory
model commonly used in messaging apps. To send an
encrypted message to a friend, the participant’s device
would request the friend’s public lock and use it to
lock the message; only the friend, via possession of the
matching private key, would be able to read the message.
Prior work has obtained mixed results on the utility of
explaining the underlying cryptography model [8], [18],
[19]. We included this module to investigate both how
it would affect users’ overall understanding and whether
they would find it interesting or important.
3.3. Recruitment
We recruited participants who were 18 or older, use
messaging apps at least once a week, and did not possess
significant prior cryptographic knowledge, as reported on
a screening survey. We placed flyers around the University
of Maryland campus and surrounding neighborhoods, sent
emails to university distribution lists, and advertised on
Craigslist for Washington, D.C. All interviews took place
in person, on our campus, and all sessions were audio
recorded (with permission). Participants were paid $20 for
completing the one-hour study and reimbursed for parking
when applicable. The study protocol was approved by our
organization’s ethics review board.
3.4. Data Analysis
Two researchers transcribed three sessions, and the
remaining 22 were transcribed by an external transcription
service. The majority of our collected data was qualita-
tive. We applied textual microanalysis to analyze these
data [34]. Two researchers iteratively developed a code-
book using responses from three participants to capture
key themes and ideas. The two researchers then inde-
pendently coded all participants’ responses. We use Krip-
pendorff’s αto measure the inter-coder reliability [35].
The average αacross the codebook is 0.85, which is
considered reliable [35]. After calculating reliability, the
researchers met to resolve all disagreements.
Because of our qualitative focus and thus the limited
sample size, we use changes in quiz responses descrip-
tively, to contextualize participants’ qualitative responses
to the tutorial. We do not apply hypothesis testing or
attempt to make statistical comparisons.
3.5. Limitations
Our sample is small, and our participants were
younger and more educated than the general population,
potentially limiting generalizability. Most participants (see
below) had heard of encrypted messaging, but few actively
used it, and all had limited knowledge about encryption
and related technologies. We therefore believe our study
can provide insight about moderately tech-savvy users
who might consider adopting encrypted messaging. Re-
sults from this exploratory study can be used as a starting
point for developing E2EE explanations and validating
them with larger samples.
As in any interview study, participants may have an-
swered quickly rather than thoroughly [36]; to mitigate
this, we used a variety of tasks and follow-up questions.
Demand characteristics suggest that participants might
mirror the content of the tutorials back to the interviewer
in an effort to tell us what they thought we wanted
to hear [37]. In this study, attempts to mirror content
demonstrate what the participant has (not) learned and
therefore are not a major source of concern.
More broadly, our tutorial necessarily encodes some
of the researchers’ judgment about what E2EE concepts
are most important for users to learn; this may affect par-
ticipants’ information retention and their responses about
importance. We attempted to mitigate this by providing a
broad range of content for participants to consider and by
endeavoring to present all concepts as equally important.
Finally, our results, in which participants focused on
the material for several minutes, may not translate directly
to real-life behaviors like glancing at introductory material
when using a messaging app. Nonetheless, we believe that
insights from our study — particularly which concepts
proved most important and surprising — provide a foun-
dation for future research into shorter interventions that
users encounter in passing.
4. Participants
In total, 62 people completed our screening survey. We
recruited 26 participants on a rolling basis, eliminating
one who withdrew mid-study. Demographics are shown
in Table 1. Fourteen of 25 participants were female and
21 were between the ages of 18 and 29. The participants
tended to have an educated background, with 19 holding
a bachelor’s or master’s degree.
Only one participant reported an education in com-
puter security, computer science, computer engineering,
or IT, and none reported familiarity with cryptographic
algorithms. Eighteen reported either not having heard of or
not having used encrypted or secure messaging, while five
reported that they actively use such messaging. However,
two of these five used only non-E2EE WeChat.
Participants reported using many messaging tools at
least once a week: Facebook Messenger (20), iMessage
(16), Snapchat (12), SMS text messaging (12), Google
Hangouts (8), and WhatsApp (6). Four or fewer reported
using each of WeChat, Telegram, KakaoTalk, Google
Allo, GroupMe, Instagram Messenger, and Twitter.
As mentioned in Section 3.2, we created four modules
to test with our participants. For this exploratory, lab-
based study, each participant started with the overview
ID Gen. Age Eth. Mod. Crit. Familiarity
P1 F 18-29 Asian ORC 3,4 use frequently*
P2 F 30-39 Black OR 5,6 not heard of
P3 F 18-29 Black O 1,2 not heard of
P4 M 30-39 Black OM 1,3 use frequently
P5 F 18-29 White ORM 2,5 not heard of
P6 F 18-29 White ORC 3,6 not heard of
P7 F 18-29 Asian ORM 2,5 heard, not use
P8 F 18-29 Black OM 1,5 heard, not use
P9 M 18-29 Asian ORC 4,5 heard, not use
P10 M 18-29 Black O 3,5 not heard of
P11 F 18-29 Black OR 1,4 heard, not use
P12 M 50-59 N/A ORM 1,6 heard, not use
P13 M 18-29 Asian OM 2,4 use frequently
P14 F 18-29 Asian OR 2,3 not heard of
P15 M 18-29 Hispanic ORM 3,4 not heard of
P16 M 18-29 Black ORC 1,2 use occasionally
P17 F 18-29 Other OM 3,6 not heard of
P18 M 18-29 Asian O 2,6 not heard of
P19 F 18-29 White OR 4,5 heard, not use
P20 M 18-29 Asian ORM 1,3 not heard of
P21 F 18-29 White ORC 1,6 heard, not use
P22 F 18-29 Asian OR 2,6 use occasionally
P23 M 18-29 White OM 4,6 heard, not use
P24 M 18-29 Asian O 1,5 use frequently*
P25 F 30-39 Black O 4,6 use frequently
TABLE 1. PARTICIPANT DEMOGRAPHICS INCLUDING,GEN DE R,AGE ,
ETHNICITY,TUT ORI AL MO DU LES ,MESSAGES CRITIQUED,AND
PR E-EX IST ING FA MIL IAR ITY W ITH E NCRY PT ED OR S ECU RE
MESSAGING. TWO PART ICI PANT S WHO O NLY US E WECHAT BUT
ID ENT IFIE D THE MSE LVES A S FRE QUE NT US ERS O F ENC RYPT ED
TOO LS AR E MA RKE D WIT H *. MODULES INCLUDE OVERVIEW (O),
RISKS (R), MISCONCEPTIONS (M) AN D CRYP TO KNO WLE DGE (C).
module. Some participants then immediately moved on
to the secondary quiz, interview, and other tasks, while
others saw up to two other modules. We randomly dis-
tributed participants among five combinations of modules
we found interesting: 15 participants were shown the
risks module, 10 saw misconceptions, and only 5 saw
the cryptographic knowledge module, which we expected
(based on prior work) would be least useful. We did not
compare across participants who saw different combina-
tions of the modules either qualitatively or statistically.
Rather, we wanted to gain an initial indication of how the
different explanation types worked both separately and in
combination, which could help us gain qualitative insights
about how participants interpreted each module.
5. Results
We will discuss what participants learned from our
tutorial, which incorrect mental models persisted, and
some other feedback.
5.1. Tutorials improved mental models
Participants’ understanding of E2EE improved regard-
less of which tutorial modules they saw. This is reflected
in changes to their quiz answers post-tutorial, as well as
their interview comments.
5.1.1. Improved understanding of messages in tran-
sit. Our quiz included two adversaries related to threats
in transit: eavesdropping hackers and ISPs. Participants
learned that E2EE could protect their messages from these
two adversaries: 13 and 10 participants lowered their
scores (perceiving eavesdropping to be more difficult) in
these two questions, for hackers and ISPs, respectively.
Before the tutorial, participants held several miscon-
ceptions about these potential adversaries. Seven thought
these adversaries could not learn message content as they
were not part of the conversation, and four (one over-
lapping) were surprised to learn that ISPs were involved
in the communication. For example, P20 said “[ISPs] are
even more outside, like, the actors involved in the commu-
nication, [they are] not the company making the app and
they’re not any of the users, it will be very hard for them
to open up the message itself.” P22 commented, “I thought
this was one to one relations. Even though they provide
the service. . . . Like KakaoTalk, I believe that company
can access to my messages, but I’ve never thought that the
provider, Verizon [could]. I thought that they just provide
the transportation.” P21 did not realize the recipient’s ISP
was involved, believing the app company would send the
message directly to its recipient.
On the other hand, six participants believed before
the tutorial that ISPs could potentially learn any message,
since they provide the internet service for phones. As P14
said, “I think they have access to everything you send
through the network.” After the tutorial, all six participants
recognized that encryption (point-to-point or end-to-end)
could address this issue.
5.1.2. Protection from app companies and govern-
ments. After the tutorial, participants understood better
that E2EE could protect their messages from app com-
panies and governments; 17 and 19 participants lowered
their scores for these adversaries, respectively.
Before the tutorial, 17 participants who thought E2EE
was vulnerable to these adversaries incorrectly mentioned
plaintext messages stored at the app company, where
governments could request them. In line with prior find-
ings [6], [10], 11 suggested that these relatively powerful
adversaries could simply break the encryption.
After the tutorial, 22 participants recognized that
E2EE prevents plaintext messages from being stored at
the app company and provides a defense, even against
powerful adversaries. P14 stated, “Using E2EE there will
be a shield. . . . The company would know there is a
message that exists, but they wouldn’t know what content
it contains.” P15 similarly commented, “It’s easy for the
government to get a copy .. . but with E2EE they won’t
be able to break the encryption to see what’s inside.
5.1.3. Better recognition of E2EE limitations. After the
tutorial, 10 participants rated the risk at the endpoints
(even when using E2EE) higher than they had initially,
and 21 participants correctly understood that E2EE could
not protect against malware on their phones (up from 16).
Before the tutorial, six participants thought encryption
could protect against malware at endpoints: “Malware
[is] getting access to the activities, but .. . the message
is still going to be encrypted” (P8). Two participants did
not understand before the tutorial how malware related to
message privacy at all; P3 said malware is not “part of the
conversation.” P8 updated his opinion after the tutorial: “If
malware’s already installed on your phone, then it’s not
really protected because they have access to the original
message before it’s even encrypted.” P12 was very specific
in pointing out that E2EE could protect against “two out
of those three risks: the transit ones, and the app company,
but not the user phones.
5.2. Remaining (and new) concerns
Although our tutorial improved participants’ under-
standing overall, some participants retained existing mis-
conceptions and some even developed new ones.
5.2.1. Confidentiality concerns remain. After the tuto-
rial, eight participants remained unconvinced that E2EE
could provide sufficient confidentiality from powerful ad-
versaries. For example, P2 argued that government agen-
cies have “both the resources and the knowledge base
to crack an algorithm.” Similarly, P6 continued to be-
lieve that the app company would inherently have enough
knowledge about the encryption process to access mes-
sages: “If the company creates the encryption or whatever,
I’m assuming there is some sort of maybe possibility of
them decrypting it . . . the company still has your lock,
meaning even if it’s encrypted wouldn’t they be able to
at some point decrypt it?” P21 suggested skilled hackers
could similarly overcome E2EE: “Because I’m thinking
of it literally . . . I would imagine that if you work in a
locksmith office, if you’re an expert in keys and locks,
you might not have somebody’s key but you would be
able to get into their house because you are an expert.
5.2.2. E2EE is less secure than other communication
methods. Four participants ranked SMS, email, or a direct
phone call as the most secure communications method
even after the tutorial. Some argued, not unreasonably,
that voice conversations are more transient than written
messages: “It’s just talk. That’s most likely to be forgot-
ten” (P10). P11, however, preferred phone calls as a means
to establish authenticity: “If I know my friend or someone
in my family, it’s very hard to mimic that voice . . . . With
a phone call, I’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s not you.’
5.2.3. Point-to-point encryption is devalued. All mod-
ules emphasized the benefits of E2EE. The risks mod-
ule explicitly distinguishes point-to-point encryption from
E2EE, but also mentions that most non-E2EE messaging
apps are encrypted point-to-point. This nuance was not
entirely absorbed. P21 recalled that non-E2EE messaging
apps “[take] out the first threat even though there are the
other threats. So maybe it’s not quite as easy” as with
no protection; however, she still ranked the security of
such apps behind standard voice calling. Among the 15
participants who viewed the risks module, 10 retained
their security ranking for these apps, among whom seven
still ranked non-E2EE messaging in fourth or last place.
Four other participants reduced their ranking for these
apps. This suggests researchers, designers, and advocates
promoting E2EE should be careful not to inadvertently
push consumers toward less-secure options when E2EE is
unavailable or undesirable.
5.2.4. Integrity and authenticity improve but remain
confusing. Our results align with prior findings that users
do not effectively consider integrity and authenticity [6],
[8]. Before the tutorial, most participants did not think in-
tegrity (14) or authenticity (18) could easily be violated in
E2EE communication; however, many did not relate this
difficulty to E2EE, instead believing that such violations
would be inherently difficult in any messaging system.
Eleven participants believed these violations would require
multiple unlikely steps, and three believed an attacker
could never be fast enough to alter a message in transit.
P19 said, “It would have to happen while the [sender]’s
typing, cause like if they get the message instantaneously,
then...They’d have only like a second to change it.” Eleven
participants, meanwhile, believed integrity and authentic-
ity were determined entirely by protection of usernames
and passwords, rather than any vulnerability in transit.
After the tutorial, participants were more likely to
recognize that E2EE could protect integrity and authen-
ticity. As P2 explained, messages “have the end-to-end
encryption, and if the phone’s not stolen, it’s going to be
difficult.” While participants believed our assertion that
E2EE can assure integrity and authenticity, exactly how
E2EE provides this protection remained muddled. Seven
still confused integrity with confidentiality. For example,
P25 remarked that “there’s really nothing for him (the
attacker) to modify because he doesn’t know the contents
of the message.” (To be fair, properly designed E2EE tools
should protect both confidentiality and integrity without
requiring the user to make a distinction.) Further, two
participants continued to believe that a limited time win-
dow for action would prevent an integrity or authenticity
violation, and other participants continued to conflate
authenticity with username and password issues. P25 sug-
gested that “E2EE protects against message modification
and impersonation. Not even usernames and or passwords
can be stolen or guessed.”
Relatedly, the integrity and authenticity discussion in
the misconceptions module was cited by several partic-
ipants as the least effective tutorial section, with three
participants explicitly calling it unclear or confusing. This
may be because these concepts are inherently difficult to
explain, because we explained them poorly, or both.
5.2.5. E2EE protects against malware. While many par-
ticipants increased their understanding of endpoint threats,
five participants indicated (in the post-tutorial quiz) an
increased belief that E2EE could protect against malware
on their phones. As P5 explained, “Even if you put the
malware on the phone, it’s not gonna give you access
because the data is so well encrypted.” P19 concurred that
“By using E2EE, you decrease the likelihood that some-
one can hack into your phone.” These results underscore
the importance of ensuring that educational interventions
do not give users a false sense of security.
5.3. Other feedback
Finally, we report additional feedback about our tuto-
rial, as well as the existing texts participants critiqued.
5.3.1. The tutorial was generally well received. Overall,
participants rated the tutorial as easy to understand (mean
4.9 on a five-point Likert scale) and informative (mean
4.5). While these scores may partially reflect demand
effects, participants also gave thoughtful comments. P8
said “I think it was easy because you used very clear,
simple, and concise language. . . . The visuals really, I
think, facilitated my understanding”; others agreed. Some,
such as P20, said they gained new knowledge: “I learned
a lot that I didn’t know before, clarifying how messaging
apps actually work, the risks and how encryption can help
protect you.” Participants including P3 also said the length
was about right: “Since it’s a short presentation, I’m sure
there was more to learn. However, I don’t think anyone
needed to know more than that.” A few participants,
however, identified tutorial elements that were not clear,
primarily integrity and authenticity (discussed above).
5.3.2. Wording should be clear and simple. The cri-
tique task revealed several instances where overly com-
plicated explanations, jargon, and related issues inhibited
understanding. For example, three of eight participants
who viewed Msg3 struggled with technical terms like
ISP, network administrator, and third parties. Both Msg2
and Msg5 mention that E2EE is applied automatically.
Participants preferred the shorter, clearer wording in Msg5
(five likes, no dislikes) to the longer version in Msg2 (two
likes, three dislikes).
Three of eight participants who saw Msg2 were con-
fused by the “them” in “Many messaging apps only
encrypt messages between you and them.P18 correctly
guessed “they” were the messaging apps, but P3 assumed
that “they” were message receivers and consequently mis-
understood the rest of the sentence.
6. What knowledge should we impart?
We discuss which information was most salient to
our participants: what they found most important and
surprising, and what they would choose to tell others.
6.1. Confidentiality is most significant
Unsurprisingly, confidentiality was most significant to
our participants. It was selected 13 times as the most
important information and nine times as the most surpris-
ing, more than any other theme. P3 said “the inability of
other parties to read your messages” was most important
because “that actually is the primary purpose” of E2EE.
P15 was surprised that “the internet service provider and
the app company . . . may still get a copy of the message,
that is protected by this wall, that is nearly impossible to
break. So they can see you sent a message, but they can’t
see what the message says.” P14 was similarly surprised
that with E2EE, even the government could not read
message content: “I thought the government could always
read what you have sent because, like, you always heard
in the news that some student said something stupid on
their phone and they got deported or something. . . . So I
always thought that the government can read everything
you send. But now today I realize, oh they can’t.
Seventeen participants said they would tell others
about confidentiality. P8 would convey that E2EE “is go-
ing to be the most secure way that you can send messages.
. . . It has kind of like a very, very, strong protective layer
around the message so that people can’t intercept the
message and retrieve its contents. It will only be accessible
to the intended recipient.”
Confidentiality also proved important during the cri-
tique and design activities. Almost everyone pointed posi-
tively to mentions of confidentiality in existing messages,
and 20 participants mentioned it in their own messages.
P25’s message said, “E2EE is a great way to ensure that
your messages will be securely transmitted to the recipient
of the message originally intended for. .. . No one has
direct access to the text contents but the sender and the
receiver of the information. Not even the monitoring com-
pany, hackers and the government can see the message.
6.2. Risks usefully differentiate E2EE
Of 15 participants who saw the risks module six
reported that risks were most important to discuss and
five reported risks as most surprising. These participants
emphasized the importance of clearly differentiating E2EE
from non-E2EE communications. For instance, P6 said “I
think, again, knowing the risks of the non-E2EE and then
really comparing it to how is this better. So that’s really
the most important.” P11 said, “I think they just want the
bottom line, like okay, what is the difference? So, I think
the risk factors are probably the biggest takeaway.”
When asked what they would tell friends or family
about E2EE, 10 participants (seven who saw the risks
module) specifically mentioned risks. As with importance,
these participants used risks to explain why E2EE was
better than non-E2EE: P5 said he would start by explain-
ing the risks of non-E2EE messaging and then explaining
that E2EE “really protects it [your message] while it’s
in transit and while it’s at the app company. . . . It can’t
be modified or impersonated or whatever. . ..[E2EE apps]
basically protect your message along the entire pathway
and it’s the most secure way to send a message.” P19
agreed that “showing them the benefits of encryption so
it’s less likely your information will be hacked would
probably be beneficial,” particularly in the context of many
data breaches in the news.
We saw similar themes in participants’ designed mes-
sages. P2 wrote, “Your information is exposed every time
you utilize your mobile device. There are three poten-
tial exposures, the service providers, the app company,
and hackers. . . . To protect yourself against these parties,
please ensure your device has E2EE protection.” P7 began
with a detailed message about risks before explaining how
E2EE could address these risks.
6.3. Explaining weaknesses can be important
We introduced three endpoint weaknesses in the tuto-
rial — shoulder surfing, message forwarding, and malware
— but malware primarily drew our participants’ attention.
Four and five participants reported that this information
was most important and surprising, respectively. P6 ex-
plained that “If you’re presenting this as a product, I
think it’s important to [be] realistic and inform people.
P18 agreed: “The malware piece is important for me to
know if I’m specifically looking at TextLight company
and what is not protected . . . because I want to know to
what extent is this actually going to be secure?” Similarly,
four participants said that if they were to introduce E2EE
to other people, they would mention the limitations, and
13 participants acknowledged limitations we discussed
straightforwardly in their designed messages.
Among the critiqued messages, only Msg3 pointed
out possible weaknesses: “But please remember that we
cannot protect you from your own mother if she takes
your unlocked phone without a passcode. Or from your IT-
department if they access your computer at work. Or from
any other people that get physical or root access to your
phones or computers running TextLight.This information
was marked as especially useful by five participants out
of eight who saw this message. These participants noted
positively both the content of the information and the
humorous tone. (However, two participants including P15
noted that “root access” was jargon: “I don’t know what
root access means. What happened?”)
6.4. Cryptography details: Use with caution
We observed mixed reactions to technical details pre-
sented in our crypto knowledge module and in the existing
messages participants critiqued.
Only one of the five participants who saw this module
selected it as important, saying “you cannot tell people
this thing is so good, but you don’t tell them why” (P1).
None mentioned crypto knowledge or the lock and key
metaphor when asked what they would tell their friends
and family about E2EE. P18, who did not see the module
but did critique Msg2, which used the same metaphor,
remarked that this information provided “a little bit more
understanding of what encryption could look like, even
though it’s not probably how it works.”
Some participants were reassured to learn that a secret
key was known only to the user and their devices, as
pointed out in Msg4 and Msg6. P12 noted that this “elim-
inates all possibility on service providers . . . they don’t
have the encryption keys in order to break the codes.
Eight participants’ design-task messages mentioned cryp-
tography, including three that mentioned keys known only
to the user and not the app company. Interestingly, seven
participants who didn’t see the crypto module said they
wanted to learn more about how E2EE works, and one
who did wanted even more details.
Other participants were confused by technical details.
“This [tutorial] is intended for new users, people who
don’t know anything, like me. This [crypto explanation] is
helpful, but I don’t need to know exactly how it happens”
(P1). Other participants found specific details confusing:
P23 associated a key with a password and asked, “How
do you have a key that you have to put in every time
to see a message?” P5 was confused by the assertion in
Msg5 that “the user is in control over the key exchange,
asking, “Do I have to do something? How does that
key exchange happen?” Two other participants expressed
similar feelings.
Seven of eight participants who critiqued Msg2 liked
the lock-and-key metaphor, and three thought it explained
encryption well, but three found specific language con-
fusing. P3 said that the term “special key” was “flowery”
and “corny.” P14 objected to “added protection”: “What
does it mean by ‘added protection?’ I don’t get it.
Msg5 emphasizes that “the end-to-end encryption
layer passes through the server uninterrupted; the server
cannot remove the inner encryption layer.This expla-
nation increased four of eight participants’ confidence in
E2EE protection, but five worried it was too technical or
even boring. P8 couldn’t picture what this would look like:
“I didn’t understand if it was an inner layer or outer layer,
whatever that meant. It was just frustrating.
Of eight participant-designed messages mentioning
cryptography, four tried to use the lock-and-key metaphor,
and three made minor technical errors, including suggest-
ing that the lock and key themselves were encrypted or
providing a symmetric-encryption-like explanation.
6.5. Other concepts were less important
Integrity and authenticity, comparison to other tools,
and algorithm security received little attention.
Comparison with other tools Four of 10 participants
who saw the cross-tool comparisons in the misconception
module mentioned it as most important, and two as most
surprising. P7 found most surprising“the misconception
that E2EE is more secure than the other methods, ’cause
I thought that phone calls was the most secure form since
it’s using your voice and not actually recorded.” Only two
participants included a comparison to other communica-
tions mechanisms in the messages they designed.
Algorithm security The misconceptions module also
included information about algorithm strength, intended
to disrupt the assumption that an expert in cryptography
can always break it [6], [10]. Of 10 participants who saw
this, only two mentioned it as important and two as sur-
prising. P5 was surprised that “it would take like a million
years or something . . . ’cause I feel like you always hear
about hackers.” Four of these 10 participants mentioned
algorithm security in their designed messages as a way to
emphasize confidentiality. P20 wrote that the algorithms
“are extremely strong and would take third parties an
impossible amount of time to crack and decrypt.”
Integrity and authenticity Integrity and authenticity
were discussed briefly in the overview module seen by
all participants, then in more detail in the misconceptions
module seen by 10 participants. Few selected these con-
cepts as important (1) or surprising (2). Three participants
mentioned integrity and/or authenticity when choosing
information to tell others, and six included them in the
messages they designed. This unpopularity may relate to
the fact that we were relatively unsuccessful explaining
these concepts to our participants (as described above).
7. Conclusion and Recommendations
Our study takes a first step in exploring how to im-
prove non-experts’ mental models of end-to-end encryp-
tion. We designed a tutorial with four modules: a brief
overview, risks associated with non-E2EE communica-
tion, corrections to three common misconceptions, and a
high-level description of how E2EE works. We evaluated
what our participants learned, what misconceptions they
retained, and which information they found most valuable.
Our results suggest that participants’ overall under-
standing of E2EE improved after the tutorial. We observed
improvement in understanding how E2EE can protect con-
fidentiality, how it compares to non-E2EE mechanisms,
and its limitations. Participants could better recognize po-
tential adversaries, such as internet service providers, they
had not previously considered; they also newly recognized
that E2EE can provide protection even against powerful
adversaries like app companies and governments. Further,
the tutorial helped participants recognize that E2EE cannot
protect against endpoint threats such as malware. We be-
lieve these concepts — appropriate mental models of risks,
threats, and protections — are crucial to users’ ability to
make meaningful decisions about their communications.
This study shows that educational interventions on these
concepts can improve understanding.
Although our tutorial provided a net improvement,
participants did maintain some existing concerns and
misunderstandings, and a few developed new ones. Our
attempt to clarify authenticity and integrity — in partic-
ular to disentangle it from password security — was not
successful. Further, some maintained their belief that stan-
dard voice calls are inherently more secure than any text
communication, showing our tutorial doesn’t yet capture
nuanced differences in threat models between mediums.
In practice, of course, most users will not have the
time or interest to complete a tutorial like ours. We
therefore distill — from our participants’ responses to
the tutorial, their critiques of existing messages, and their
efforts to design new messages — key elements that we
hope can translate to shorter and more varied educational
interventions, such as those on apps’ webpages and help
documentation, in their installation descriptions and on-
boarding, or in interstitial screens.
Confidentiality is the primary ingredient. Our par-
ticipants placed the most importance on conveying how
E2EE can protect users’ messages from being read by
various adversaries. This can be supported by references
to risk, algorithm strength, and the comparative security
of other communications. Perhaps most important is to
explicitly explain protection against powerful adversaries,
which was most surprising to many participants.
Risks can be used to support comparison. One
way to effectively emphasize confidentiality is to detail
the risks that distinguish E2EE from, e.g., point-to-point
encryption. This improves threat models and can increase
the sense of security, potentially motivating adoption.
Technical details only in small doses. While some
participants wanted to know how E2EE works, most did
not find it critical, and we observed a strong risk of
misunderstandings. Previous work noted that commonly
used metaphors may fail because they are structural (how
the system works) rather than functional (what it can
do) [19]. We similarly observed that technical details were
most effective when functional. In particular, emphasizing
that the secret stays only on users’ devices appears to
improve perception of security without creating confusion.
Clarifying limitations is important. Participants found
value in clarifying what E2EE cannot protect against.
Commercial entities may hesitate to call attention to
drawbacks of their products, but our evidence suggests
it can improve mental models that might otherwise limit
adoption. (Of course, this must be done carefully to avoid
undermining the overall usefulness of the tool.)
Explaining integrity and authenticity may not be
worth it. Our unsuccessful explanations of integrity
and authenticity, combined with prior related findings,
suggest conveying these nuanced concepts effectively will
continue to be challenging. Relatively few participants re-
garded these concepts as directly important; instead, most
absorbed them into their model of confidentiality. (This
aligns with the approach in [7] of redefining authenticity in
terms of confidentiality.) As such, we recommend against
trying to explain integrity and authenticity independently,
without considerable investment in identifying and testing
a more comprehensible path forward.
Strive for simplicity. Various comments from our cri-
tique session demonstrate that jargon not only obstructs
users’ understanding, but also annoys them. Participants
generally frowned on overly complex explanations. All
the texts we examined appear to have been written to be
colloquial, but we suggest even further simplification.
We hope these recommendations can inform the de-
sign of interventions that can be integrated more naturally
into users’ communication workflows. In particular, they
must be validated across a broader demographic range
of participants and in real-world situations when learning
about E2EE is not the user’s primary task. Future work
should also examine how to tie these high-level concepts
more directly to concrete tasks such as choosing a com-
munication medium, turning on E2EE mode (when not
automated), performing an authentication ceremony, or
noticing a key change. Overall, mental models that are
better aligned with how technologies function will enable
more effective and private use of communications tools.
Acknowledgements
This material is based in part upon work supported by
the U.S. Air Force and DARPA under Contract FA8750-
16-C-0022. Opinions, findings, conclusions, and recom-
mendations are those of the authors and do not necessarily
reflect the views of the U.S Air Force and DARPA.
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Appendix A.
Quiz Questions
Suppose TextLight is a messaging app which has
end-to-end encryption (E2EE). You send a message to
your friend, Bob, using TextLight, to invite him to watch
the movie Star Wars tonight. Please answer the follow-
ing questions based on your understanding of end-to-end
encryption (E2EE). [Note: all questions except Q9 were
five-point Likert-scale choice questions: “Very difficult,
“Somewhat difficult,” “Neutral,” “Somewhat easy,” “Very
easy.”]
1) Suppose Dave could observe the communication be-
tween your phone and the TextLight company, how
difficult would it be for Dave to learn the contents
of your invitation message?
2) How difficult would it be for the TextLight company
to learn the contents of your invitation message?
3) Consider your Internet or mobile service provider,
such as Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, etc. How
difficult would it be for these service providers to
learn the contents of your invitation message?
4) If a hacker, Chuck successfully steals data that is
stored in the computers at the TextLight company,
how difficult would it be for Chuck to learn the
contents of your invitation message?
5) Some government intelligence or national security
agencies (e.g. NSA) request the TextLight company
to hand over stored user messages to them. How
difficult would it be for these agencies to learn the
contents of your invitation message?
6) Suppose George has previously installed some mal-
ware on your phone which could record your activi-
ties, how difficult would it be for George to learn the
contents of your invitation message?
7) How difficult would it be for someone (for example,
a hacker) to modify messages between you and Bob
during your conversation, so that Bob will receive an
invitation to watch the movie Jurassic Park, instead
of Star Wars?
8) Suppose both your and Bob’s Textlight usernames
and passwords are not hacked/stolen/guessed by
other people. How difficult would it be for someone
(for example, a hacker) to impersonate Bob in order
to respond your invitation message? For example,
you receive a response message that seems to be from
Bob, but was actually sent by Frank.
9) Please sort the following tools based on how secure
you feel using them, with the most secure tool at the
top.
a) Sending messages using SMS text messaging app
b) Making a direct landline/mobile phone call
c) Sending Email
d) Sending messages in instant messaging apps with
E2EE
e) Sending messages in instant messaging apps with-
out E2EE
Appendix B.
Interview Questions
Now we will ask you some questions about how you
feel about these slides.
1) Could you briefly recall what you have learned from
our tutorial?
2) How difficult or easy to understand was our tutorial?
[Very difficult, difficult, neutral, Easy, Very easy]
3) How informative was our tutorial? [Very non-
informative, non-informative, neutral, informative,
very informative]
4) What piece of the tutorial you think is most important
to you to help you learn E2EE? Why? What about
non-important parts?
5) What part of the tutorial you think is most surprising
to you? Least surprising? Why?
6) Suppose you want to teach E2EE to your family or
friends who don’t know E2EE before, what part of
the tutorial do you want them to learn, or should they
know? Why?
7) What part of the tutorial you like or dislike, think
(not) clear, or (not) well-articulated?
Appendix C.
App Message Critique
Nowadays, some messaging apps also have E2EE.
They also try to write some short introductions to their
users. Here are some of the examples. Please take some
time to read them. We anonymized these app names, and
name them all as TextLight.
C.1. App Messages
APP 1 - Line: Letter Sealing is a feature that provides
end-to-end encryption (E2EE) for chat room messages.
E2EE is a communication system designed so that mes-
sages saved on our servers are encrypted and cannot be
read by anyone except the sender and receiver of the
message. Letter Sealing uses unique, user-specific encryp-
tion keys which allow users to safely and securely send
messages to one another.
APP 2 - WhatsApp: Many messaging apps only
encrypt messages between you and them, but TextLight’s
end-to-end encryption ensures only you and the person
you’re communicating with can read what is sent, and
nobody in between, not even TextLight. This is because
your messages are secured with a lock, and only the
recipient and you have the special key needed to unlock
and read them. For added protection, every message you
send has its own unique lock and key. All of this happens
automatically: no need to turn on settings or set up special
secret chats to secure your messages.
APP 3 - Telegram: All messages use end-to-end
encryption. This means only you and the recipient can
read those messages – nobody else can decipher them,
including us here at TextLight. TextLight can help when
it comes to data transfer and secure communication. This
means that all messages that you send and receive via
TextLight cannot be deciphered when intercepted by your
ISP, network administrator or other third parties. But
please remember that we cannot protect you from your
own mother if she takes your unlocked phone without
a passcode. Or from your IT-department if they access
your computer at work. Or from any other people that
get physical or root access to your phones or computers
running TextLight.
APP 4 - Viber: On TextLight, end-to-end encryption
is always turned on. Encryption keys exist on user devices
and nowhere else. So no one but you and the people you’re
communicating with can see your messages or hear your
calls, not even TextLight. The messages you send make
their way from your device to the recipient in the form
of a code that only the recipient’s device can translate to
plain text.
When your chats are protected by end-to-end encryp-
tion, no one has access to them. Perhaps most importantly,
TextLight doesn’t have access to them – which means
nothing you share can be used to target you later. Text-
Light can’t share what it doesn’t have and, since TextLight
doesn’t have access to the content of your conversations,
it can’t share it with third. So, you can be sure you won’t
mysteriously start seeing ads related to something you
were just talking about with a friend on TextLight.
APP 5 - Threema: TextLight end-to-end encrypts
all your messages. All encryption and decryption happen
directly on the device, and the user is in control over the
key exchange. This guarantees that no third party – not
even the server operators – can decrypt the content of the
messages and calls. Only the intended recipient, can read
your messages.
TextLight uses two different encryption layers to pro-
tect messages between the sender and the recipient.
End-to-end encryption layer: this layer is between the
sender and the recipient.
Transport layer: each end-to-end encrypted message
is encrypted again for transport between the client
and the server, in order to protect the header infor-
mation.
The crucial part is that the end-to-end encryption layer
passes through the server uninterrupted; the server cannot
remove the inner encryption layer.
APP 6 - ProtonMail: In TextLight, your data is
encrypted in a way that makes it inaccessible to us. Data
is encrypted on the client side using an encryption key that
we do not have access to. This means we don’t have the
technical ability to decrypt your messages, and as a result,
we are unable to hand your data over to third parties. With
TextLight, privacy isn’t just a promise, it is mathematically
ensured.
When you use E2EE to send a message to someone,
no one monitoring the network can see the content of
your message – not hackers, not the government, and not
even the company (e.g. TextLight) that facilitates your
communication.
This differs from the encryption that most companies
already use, which only protects the data in transit be-
tween your device and the company’s servers. For exam-
ple, when you send and receive a message using a service
that does not provide E2EE, the company has the ability
to access the content of your messages because they also
hold the encryption keys. E2EE eliminates this possibility
because the service provider does not actually possess the
decryption key. Because of this, E2EE is much stronger
than standard encryption.
C.2. Interview Questions
1) Generally speaking, what do you think of these in-
troductions? [Followup: Do you think these introduc-
tions can help general users understand E2EE better?]
2) Please use the green pen to mark the parts you think
the introductions are good, and use the red pen to
mark the parts you think are not good. [Followup:
Why do you think these parts are (not) good?]
3) What else you might like these introductions to tell
you?
4) Please choose the best one from these introductions.
Appendix D.
Message Design
Now you have learned our tutorial about E2EE, and
have read some tutorials used by some messaging apps.
Could you design a short introduction if you want to
teach other people about end-to-end encryption? We don’t
expect you to come up with a long document describing
every aspect of E2EE. Instead, please pick the most im-
portant pieces you want to convey. Try to come up with
the introduction within 200 words 1.
D.1. Participants’ Designed Messages
P1: All messages use end-to-end encryption. This
means only you and the recipient can read those
messages - nobody else can decipher them, not even
TextLight. All messages that you send and receive via
TextLight cannot be deciphered when intercepted by
your ISP, network administrator or any other third
parties. Unless your usernames and passwords are
stolen or guessed, there is no way that your messages
could be modificated by a third person, nor the
impersonation could happen. Nothing you share can
be used to target you later. But please note that end
to end encryption cannot protect your messages from
any other people that get physical or root access to
your phones or computers running TextLight.
P2: E2EE is exceptionally important in protecting
your information. Your information is exposed every
time you utilize your mobile device. There are three
potential exposures, the service providers, the app
company, and hackers. In efforts to protect yourself
against these parties please ensure your devices has
E2EE protection. This protection allows you infor-
mation to remain secure not even the company itself
has an encryption key to decode, grant access to
other and leave your personal information unsecured.
Additionally, one must take precautions against those
who shoulder surf and readily giving information/
access to others (giving passwords or forwarding
information). E2EE is the best method of protection
and all who utilize text messaging services should
utilize its services.
1. We copied the exact words written by the participants, including
their typos.
P3: End-to-end encryption (E2EE) is a process that
protects your messages from third parties including
but not limited to an individual, your app company
or internet service provider. As a result, only the
sender and intended recipient of a message can view
its contents. E2EE also protects messages from being
duplicated, impersonated or modified by third parties.
Although E2EE is a step forward in protecting user
information, app companies are still researching ways
to secure user information when Malware software is
detected.
P4: E2EE is an encryption used for securing your
messaging. It sends an signal through your internet,
sends to whom your messaging. With a decrypted
message only they can see and open.
P5: With other, non-encrypted messaging apps, your
messages might be vulnerable to hacking before
reaching your recipient. With TextLight, your mes-
sage is automatically encrypted with a unique lock
and key, ensuring only you and your recipient can
read what is sent. We use two layers of encryption
so that no one else– not even server operators or
TextLight employees– can access your message.
P6: Do you ever wonder who may get access to
your private messages/texts? Nowadays, it is very
easy for hackers to get your private information,
but NOT if you use TexLight app! TexLight is a
specially-encrypted app that ensures that only you
and your intended recipient can view the messages.
This encryption is so secure that even the TexLight
company cannot decrypt the messages, so you can
feel secure in your communication. Try out yourself
by downloading the app here.
P7: Many apps, text messages, and even phone calls
are not secure these days. The government, hackers,
and even phone companies can have access to the
content of your messages. People can even modify
messages that you send in between you and your
friend. Thus, it is essential to find ways to provide
more security when communicating over the web.
One way people do this is through E2EE. It is a
secure messaging app that makes it almost IMPOS-
SIBLE for people to gain access to the content of
your message. For example, a messaging app that
is E2EE may know that you have sent a message
but they do not know what the content is. This also
eliminates risk of hackers. Even if a hacker were to
hack the company, they would not be able to alter
or gain access to your content. It is actually more
secure than other platforms such as text messages,
imessage, emails, or even phone calls. It eliminates
a lot of risk. However, there are still some risks that
can not be eliminated such as someone looking over
your shoulder while you’re texting. However, overall,
it is a more secure way for people to communicate
via the web.
P8: E2EE is a system which will allow for the safe
and secure transmission of messages. This will make
it such that the message can only be viewed by the
sender and the intended recipient.
P9: The advantage of using end-to-end encryption
(E2EE) is that it prevents your messages from being
read when they are in transit and when they are stored
by the app company. Non-E2EE approaches can pre-
vent messages in transit from being compromised,
but they are still at the risk of being exposed to third
parties if the app company itself compromised. For
example, non-E2EE cannot prevent the message from
being exposed to:
1) Rogue employees
2) Requests by government agencies
3) Hackers who find a way to access the app com-
pany’s servers
However, the downside is that both E2EE and non-
E2EE apps are still at risk when it comes to the user’s
phone. Such cases include when malware is installed
or another person looks over the user’s shoulder as
they type in their passwords.
P10: Hey everyone, I want to share some important
news about the safe and secure software that can
protect you, and your information you pass to an-
other. This software is called E2EE it provides end
to end encryption protection with messages and calls
are exchanged and not even the providers can see
it. However if anyone is looking over your shoulder
that the only possible way your information can be
shared. Overall this software is definitely something
to look into if you have privacy difficulties.
P11: E2EE is a very useful and secure way of
assuring its user’s that the contents of their mes-
sages cannot be viewed or manipulated in any way,
throughout the transit and retrieval of the message.
Unlike messaging apps that choose not to use end-
to-end encryption, messages with E2EE cannot even
be accessed by the app company themselves. As
amazing as it may seem, the only possible way for
a hacker to access the encrypted information would
be if they had the ability to install malware on one’s
phone.
P12: E2EE is a user friendly feature which protects
both the sender and receive, as a result of method
the data is encrypted stored. The positive capabilities
eliminates the possibilities of a hacker intercepting
messages or restrict the company’s service provider’s
from executing decryption keys to decipher content.
With TextLight, the software makes it vertically im-
possible for unauthorized outsider to gain access
since there’s no monitoring of the network by the
company or third parties.
P13: End to end encryption is the most secure plat-
form to convey your messages to the other user.It
does not even let the network providers and the
company itself to access to our messages. We have a
few misconceptions about E2EE like we think that
our information can be hacked or used by other
agencies be it government or non-government but it
cannot. Along with this, we think that mailing is the
best and most secure method for communication but
what I have found is that apps with E2EE are more
secure that E-mails, phone messengers and phone
calls. We just need to take care about the malwares
installed in our phone and if any other person can
have access to our phone.
P14: The end-to-end encryption(E2EE) means only
you and your intended recipients can read the content
of messages. Under non-E2EE situation, there are
risks in which your message can be subject to deci-
phering, interception and modification. The internet
service providers can get access to the content of
your messages during transit, the app company can
can read your messages and hand them to govern-
ment agency when required. Moreover, a hacker can
easily intercept and modify your messages. Using
E2EE can eliminate the possibility of leaking the
contents of your messages in situations mentioned
before by adding a shield to your message so that
only you and the recipient can open that shield. More
importantly, no message modification and imperson-
ation will take place. However, E2EE can’t protect
you from shoulder surfing, an unreliable recipient or
malware installed on your phone.
P15: End-to-end encryption otherwise as E2EE is a
way to protect messages, phone calls, data transfers,
and other similar things from being obtained. E2EE
does this by essentially putting a shell that is impene-
trable around the information being sent. This means
that it is nearly impossible for someone to break
the shell and get the information that the shell is
protecting. The shell protects against everything such
as the text messaging company, hackers who try to
intercept the message, or internet service providers.
The only time E2EE does not work is when a virus
has already been placed on your phone/computer,
someone gets into your phone/computer, or whoever
you are sending the information shares it.
P16: I learned that E2EE is an end-to-end encryption
that secure messages between you and others. E2EE
secures each messages with a key that you have
with each message sending out. Non E2EE is more
vulnerable to hackers that can intercept, edit, & view
your outgoing messages. Government officials can
legally obtain messages from the app company or
service provider no matter how secure the encryption
is. Sometimes message can also be lost in transit.
P17: When you use E2EE to send a message to
someone, E2EE encrypts the data in a way that makes
it inaccessible to third parties, as the message is being
delivered. This means that the app company, internet
service providers (such as comcast or verizon), gov-
ernment agencies, and even hackers do not have the
ability to decrypt your messages. Additionally, the
app is unable to hand your data over to third parties.
No one monitoring the network can see the contents
of your message.
P18: End-to-end encryption, or E2EE, protects mes-
sages in that it only allows you (the user) and your
intended audience to read the message. Data is pro-
tected on the user side using an encryption that the
messaging app company - or any other third party
(including hacker, the government, impersonators,
etc.) - have access to, therefore no one else can see
the content of the message. E2EE does not, however,
protect receivers if malware has been installed in their
phone.
P19: There are more benefits than risks to using
E2EE, or End-to-End Encryption. E2EE mitigates
some of the risks message senders are exposed to
in every day life while texting their friends, sending
invitations through Whatsapp, or communicating in
other ways via instant messaging.
By using E2EE, this process creates a lock and
key for your messages. When you send a message
using E2EE, the message travels from your Internet
Provider, through the messaging app servers, through
the recipient’s Internet Provider, and to the recip-
ient. The lock prevents hackers, rogue employees,
and the app company/IP company themselves from
viewing the messages, and only the recipient has the
key to unlock these messages. By using E2EE, you
decrease the likelihood that someone can hack into
your phone. While there are benefits to using E2EE,
every day risks still pose a threat, like a thief stealing
your phone, someone looking over your shoulder, or
if someone installs malware on an unlocked phone.
P20: End-to-end encryption is an encryption tech-
nique that utilizes user-specific encryption keys that
only the sender and receiver of messages have access
to. This encryption technique ensures that messages
from one party to another are secure during transit
between parties and when the company that stores
the data for these messages is compromised. The
algorithms that are utilized here are extremely strong
and would take third parties an impossible amount
of time to crack and decrypt. End-to-end encryption
is an essential tool to protect users’ privacy in the
modern age, whether it be from the government or
private hackers.
P21: E2EE enables a more secure form of com-
munication, making users less vulnerable to security
threats. Therefore, when a user is incentivized to have
secure communication, apps using E2EE should be
utilized over non-E2EE apps. While this is a general
principle, it’s worth noting that messages sent over
E2EE are still vulnerable in some regards (just fewer
parts than when not using E2EE).
P22: In TextLight, your data is protected with end-to-
end encryption in a way that no one except you and
the person you are communicated with can read your
messages. This is because each message you send has
its own encrypted lock and key so that not only us
(the company) but also the internet service providers
and even the government CANNOT decrypt your
messages and hand over to third parties. Also, the
encryption works automatically and hence there is
no need to turn on settings or set up special secrets
chats.
P23: End-to-end encryption means that each user has
a key which only their phone has. When travelling
between service providers and the app company,
the message is encrypted and cannot be read until
the key unlocks the message. With normal message
services, they hold the unencrypted messages which
could be read at any time, and third parties such as
hackers or the government could see the contents.
The encryption algorithms are also very strong (so
that no hacker can break it), so the only way for
somebody besides the intended recipient to view the
message contents is if their username or password is
stolen/revealed.
P24: E2EE is a tech that can protect your messages
from any other third party by controlling E2EE pro-
cess happening directly on the device, so that only
the intended recipient can read your messages.
P25: E2EE is a great way to ensure that your mes-
sages will be securely transmitted to the recipient
of the message originally intended for. The data is
encrypted where no one has directed access to the
text contents but the sender and the receiver of the
information. Not even the monitoring company, hack-
ers and the government can see the message being
sent in the secure way. On particular E2EE apps the
encryption is always turned on the be coded and will
decode once the message has been fully received by
the recipient. This E2EE protects against message
modification and impersonation. Not even usernames
and or passwords can be stolen or guessed.
... To this end, we design a series of messages with different lengths, emphasizing different key principles related to e2e encryption. These messages build directly on our prior work exploring which e2e encryption concepts are most important and useful to convey to users [9]. ...
... Researchers have experimented with a variety of encryption metaphors, none of which has as yet been highly successful [18,60]. Although we do use a lock-key metaphor in some of our messages, we mainly follow results from our prior work which suggest focusing primarily on functional models -what e2e encryption can and cannot do -rather than on structural information about how e2e encryption works [9]. ...
... We build directly on our prior work using tutorials and participatory design to explore which concepts and explanations related to e2e encryption are most important, surprising, and challenging for users [9]. Those results suggest focusing on confidentiality and explicit discussion of risks, while noting that certain misconceptions are difficult to overcome. ...
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... Phases of Content Moderation ncryption is crucial for protecting end-user privacy and security, as well as the promotion of free expression online (Kaye, 2015). However, challenges remain in ensuring that end-users understand exactly what encryption is, including specifically endto-end encryption (Bai et al., 2020). Policy-makers likewise encounter many myths about end-to-end encryption (Global Encryption Coalition, 2020). ...
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In this paper, we assess existing technical proposals for content moderation in End-to-End Encryption (E2EE) services. First, we explain the various tools in the content moderation toolbox, how they are used, and the different phases of the moderation cycle, including detection of unwanted content. We then lay out a definition of encryption and E2EE, which includes privacy and security guarantees for end-users, before assessing current technical proposals for the detection of unwanted content in E2EE services against those guarantees. We find that technical approaches for user-reporting and meta-data analysis are the most likely to preserve privacy and security guarantees for end-users. Both provide effective tools that can detect significant amounts of different types of problematic content on E2EE services, including abusive and harassing messages, spam, mis- and disinformation, and CSAM, although more research is required to improve these tools and better measure their effectiveness. Conversely, we find that other techniques that purport to facilitate content detection in E2EE systems have the effect of undermining key security guarantees of E2EE systems.
... Wu et al. [59] identified users' (mis)conceptions about encryption in terms of functional (e.g., access control) and structural mental models. Another study showed that even after receiving educational training about end-to-end encryption, users were still confused about information integrity and authenticity [4]. Additionally, Krombholz et al. [27] identified the misconceptions about HTTPS by asking participants to think aloud while drawing their thoughts related to different scenarios. ...
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... Research indicates that many users have difficulty using End-to-End Encryption (E2EE) tools correctly and confidently, as well as recognizing their security benefits, in part because of incorrect mental models. Bai, Pearson, Kelley, and Mazurek [16] took the first step toward providing high-level, roughly correct information about endto-end encryption to non-experts. In a lab study, participants (n=25) were asked about their understanding of E2EE before and after a tutorial we created, as well as which information they found most useful and surprising. ...
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End-to-end (E2E) encryption is an effective measure against privacy infringement. In 2016, it was introduced by WhatsApp for all users (of the latest app version) quasi overnight. However, it is unclear how non-expert users perceived this change, whether they trust WhatsApp as a provider of E2E encryption, and how their communication behavior changed. We conducted semi-structured interviews with twenty WhatsApp users to answer these questions. We found that about half of the participants perceived that even with E2E encryption, their messages could still be eavesdropped, for example by hackers and other criminals, governmental institutions , or WhatsApp's employees and cooperation partners. Many participants correctly identified sender and recipient as weakest points after the introduction of E2E encryption, but misconceptions were still present. For instance, users thought that messages were transmitted directly between two devices without being forwarded or stored on a server, or interpreted 'end-to-end' as a temporally end of communication. The majority of users stated to mistrust WhatsApp and its E2E encryption and presumed image-related reasons for the cost-free implementation. While most participants did not change their communication behavior, they reported to use protection strategies such as sending sensitive content via alternative channels even after the introduction of E2E encryption.
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End-to-end encryption is the best way to protect digital messages. Historically, end-to-end encryption has been extremely difficult for people to use, but recent tools have made it more broadly accessible, largely by employing key-directory services. These services sacrifice some security properties for convenience. The authors wanted to understand how average users think about these tradeoffs. They conducted a 52-person user study and found that participants could learn to understand properties of different encryption models. Users also made coherent assessments about when different tradeoffs might be appropriate. Participants recognized that the less-convenient exchange model was more secure overall, but considered the registration model's security sufficient for most everyday purposes.
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Many authentication schemes ask users to manually compare compact representations of cryptographic keys, known as fingerprints. If the fingerprints do not match, that may signal a man-in-the-middle attack. An adversary performing an attack may use a fingerprint that is similar to the target fingerprint, but not an exact match, to try to fool inattentive users. Fingerprint representations should thus be both usable and secure. We tested the usability and security of eight fingerprint representations under different configurations. In a 661-participant between-subjects experiment, participants compared fingerprints under realistic conditions and were subjected to a simulated attack. The best configuration allowed attacks to succeed 6% of the time; the worst 72%. We find the seemingly effective compare-and-select approach performs poorly for key fingerprints and that graphical fingerprint representations, while intuitive and fast, vary in performance. We identify some fingerprint representations as particularly promising.
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Many critical communications now take place digitally, but recent revelations demonstrate that these communications can often be intercepted. To achieve true message privacy, users need end-to-end message encryption, in which the communications service provider is not able to decrypt the content. Historically, end-to-end encryption has proven extremely difficult for people to use correctly, but recently tools like Apple’s iMessage and Google’s End-to-End have made it more broadly accessible by using key-directory services. These tools (and others like them) sacrifice some security properties for convenience, which alarms some security experts, but little is known about how average users evaluate these tradeoffs. In a 52-person interview study, we asked participants to complete encryption tasks using both a traditional key-exchange model and a key-directory-based registration model. We also described the security properties of each (varying the order of presentation) and asked participants for their opinions. We found that participants understood the two models well and made coherent assessments about when different tradeoffs might be appropriate. Our participants recognized that the less-convenient exchange model was more secure overall, but found the security of the registration model to be “good enough” for many everyday purposes.
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Slowly but surely, academia and industry are fully accepting the importance of the human element as it pertains to achieving security and trust. Undoubtedly, one of the main motivations for this is the increase in attacks (e.g., social engi-neering and phishing) which exploit humans and exemplify why many authors regard them as the weakest link in the security chain. As research in the socio-technical security and trust fields gains momentum, it is crucial to intermittently pause and reflect on their progress while also considering related domains to determine whether there are any established principles which may be transferred. Comparison of the states-of-the-arts may assist in planning work going forward and identifying useful future directions for the less mature socio-technical field. This paper seeks to fulfil several of these goals, particularly as they relate to the emerging cybersecurity-risk communication domain. The literature reviews which we conduct here are beneficial and indeed noteworthy as they pull together a number of the key aspects which may affect the trustworthiness and effectiveness of communications on cybersecurity risks. In particular, we draw on information-trustworthiness research and the established field of risk communication. An appreciation of these aspects and precepts is imperative if systems are to be designed that play to individuals' strengths and assist them in maintaining security and protecting their applications and information.
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The dataset contains the survey responses and analysis files for the paper to be presented at published at USEC 2018 in San Diego, CA, US.
Conference Paper
The computer security community has advocated widespread adoption of secure communication tools to counter mass surveillance. Several popular personal communication tools (e.g., WhatsApp, iMessage) have adopted end-to-end encryption, and many new tools (e.g., Signal, Telegram) have been launched with security as a key selling point. However it remains unclear if users understand what protection these tools offer, and if they value that protection. In this study, we interviewed 60 participants about their experience with different communication tools and their perceptions of the tools' security properties. We found that the adoption of secure communication tools is hindered by fragmented user bases and incompatible tools. Furthermore, the vast majority of participants did not understand the essential concept of end-to-end encryption, limiting their motivation to adopt secure tools. We identified a number of incorrect mental models that underpinned participants' beliefs.