Making Online Chats Really “Off the Record”

Online chat applications are a great way to confirm details of a meeting, ask a quick question, or just catch up with friends or colleagues about your day wherever you may be, whether at your desk, or on your mobile phone.

But if you’re using a service like Google Hangouts to keep in touch, every message you exchange is being logged and indexed by their servers – meaning that what you say stays retrievable and therefore “discoverable” – in both the regular and legal sense.

A great way to keep chatting both convenient and truly ephemeral is to connect your Google account to an Off-the-Record (OTR) chat application. When you and your conversation partner both use a true Off-the-Record chat service like the ones demonstrated below, all of your messages are encrypted in such a way that their contents can never be retrieved. If you also activate Google’s “Off-the-Record” feature in Hangouts, then even the fact that you were chatting at all will be difficult to prove.

The great thing about the applications below (in addition to their stellar security credentials) is that unlike other apps, you’ll still be able to access all of your usual contacts and your friends can still find you as well. Even better, OTR chat applications can be connected to multiple chat services at once, so you if you have contacts on more than one platform, you can access all of them in one place.

In the short video below, security expert Harlo Holmes provides a step-by-step walkthrough of how to install and set up the free OTR (Off-the-Record) chat application ChatSecure on your Android or iPhone mobile device, so you can start chatting more privately right away. The second video shows how you can do the same for desktop chat by installing the OTR (Off-the-Record) application Adium on your Apple computer or Pidgin on your Windows machine.

Setting up OTR chat using ChatSecure on your iPhone or Android mobile device

5 min.

Setting up OTR chat using Pidgin on your Windows computer or Adium on your Mac

6 min.

*As Harlo notes towards the end of the video above, Google’s “Off-the-Record” service provides another layer of protection. Combine this with a robust OTR application like ChatSecure, Adium or Pidgin, and you’ve got a conversation that really stays between you and your conversation partner.

This post is the first in a series by the Tow Center offering detailed video walkthroughs of how to configure and use more private communication tools to connect and share information both personally and professionally. Future installments will also provide guidance on how to address common scenarios encountered by journalists.