Is that you, Alice? A Usability Study of the Authentication Ceremony of Secure Messaging Applications


Elham Vaziripour, Justin Wu, Mark O’Neill, Ray Clinton, Jordan Whitehead, Scott Heidbrink, Kent Seamons, and Daniel Zappala, Brigham Young University


The effective security provided by secure messaging applications depends heavily on users completing an authentication ceremony|a sequence of manual operations enabling users to verify they are indeed communicating with one another. Unfortunately, evidence to date suggests users are unable to do this. Accordingly, we study in detail how well users can locate and complete the authentication ceremony when they are aware of the need for authentication. We execute a two-phase study involving 36 pairs of participants, using three popular messaging applications with support for secure messaging functionality: WhatsApp, Viber, and Facebook Messenger. The first phase included instruction about potential threats, while the second phase also included instructions about the importance of the authentication ceremony. We find that, across the three apps, the average success rates of finding and completing the authentication ceremony increases from 14% to 79% from the first to second phase, with second-phase success rates as high as 96% for Viber. However, the time required to find and complete the ceremony is undesirably long from a usability standpoint, and our data is inconclusive on whether users make the connection between this ceremony and the security guarantees it brings. We discuss in detail the success rates, task timings, and user feedback for each application, as well as common mistakes and user grievances. We conclude by exploring user threat models, finding significant gaps in user awareness and understanding.

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@inproceedings {205142,
author = {Elham Vaziripour and Justin Wu and Mark O{\textquoteright}Neill and Jordan Whitehead and Scott Heidbrink and Kent Seamons and Daniel Zappala},
title = {Is that you, Alice? A Usability Study of the Authentication Ceremony of Secure Messaging Applications},
booktitle = {Thirteenth Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security (SOUPS 2017)},
year = {2017},
isbn = {978-1-931971-39-3},
address = {Santa Clara, CA},
pages = {29--47},
url = {},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = jul

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