End-to-end encryption in Matrix and in Riot are in Beta, and may be subject to change.
I have made every effort to ensure the accuracy of the information in this post, but this should not be viewed as an official guide to end-to-end encryption in Matrix or Riot.
End-to-end encryption is one of the main features of the Matrix communications protocol and of Riot, a glossy client for Matrix. This post provides a high-level overview of what end-to-end encryption is, how it works in Matrix and Riot, and how to use it. It is intended to be understandable to people who are starting with little to no knowledge of encryption, while still being as accurate as possible, and the goal is to help people get a better understanding of end-to-end encryption in Matrix so that they can use it more securely and effectively.
What is end-to-end encryption?
Encryption is a way of ensuring that unauthorized people cannot view information that is not intended for them. Encryption takes the information and, using an encryption key, scrambles the information in a such a way that it cannot be read without the corresponding decryption key. (In some encryption systems, the encryption and decryption keys are the same, whereas in others, they are different.)
In some communication systems that involve a server, the connection between each user and the server is encrypted so that anyone who taps into that connection cannot read any messages. By default, all communication in Matrix is encrypted in this way. However, this still allows messages to be read by server administrators, or anyone who manages to gain access to the server.
End-to-end encryption (sometimes abbreviated as e2e encryption, or simply e2e or e2ee) means that messages are encrypted by the sender in such a way that only the people you are communicating with can read it — none of the servers in between can read the message.
Why do I need end-to-end encryption?
Whether it's our credit card or banking details, health records, corporate strategy, or even plans for a surprise party, we all have things that we would prefer not to be made public. End-to-end encryption helps maintain your privacy.
Using end-to-end encryption even for messages that don't need to be secret also helps increase the security of messages that do need to be secret, as it prevents someone from determining which messages have sensitive information and which ones don't.
Are all conversations in Matrix end-to-end encrypted?
End-to-end encryption can be enabled on each room individually. While encryption is still in beta, all rooms are unencrypted by default. Once encryption is out of beta, then private rooms will be encrypted by default.
If you have sufficient privileges (normally moderator or admin permissions) in a room, you can go to the room settings and enable encryption. Note that once encryption is enabled in a room, it cannot be disabled again.
Riot indicates encrypted rooms with a locked icon next to the message input box, and unencrypted rooms with an unlocked icon.
Why won't all rooms be encrypted?
There are several reasons why some rooms will not be encrypted even after encryption is out of beta. In brief, some of the reasons are that encryption interferes with certain types of integrations (including the bots and bridges hosted by matrix.org), encryption prevents people from reading messages sent before they joined the room (which is useful for some rooms such as rooms used as support forums), encryption can slow down sending messages (which should not be noticeable in small rooms, but could be quite significant in large rooms), and encryption is of questionable value in a room that anyone can join and read.
What's the deal with all these devices?
Matrix encrypts messages to devices rather than to users. This allows for greater flexibility and privacy. For example, if your phone gets stolen, then you can tell your contacts to blacklist your phone, and whoever has your phone will not be able to decrypt any future conversations, without affecting any of your other devices.
Why does Riot complain about "unknown devices" when I send a message in an encrypted chat?
When you try to communicate with someone, Riot will fetch the list of that person's devices from the server, including an encryption key for each device that can be used to encrypt messages so that they can be read on that device. However, Riot has no way of determining whether that the key is legitimate or if it was planted or altered by someone trying to snoop in on your conversations, so it warns you when it encounters a device that it hasn't seen before.
Riot allows you the option to send messages even to devices that you haven't verified, or to verify the key to tell Riot that it is trusted, or to blacklist the device to tell Riot that it should never encrypt messages to that device.
How do I verify devices?
Note that the current device verification process is only temporary and in the future will be replaced by something that's easier to use.
In order to verify someone's device, you need to have some reasonably secure way to communicate with them. It doesn't have to be secret (if someone listens in on the key verification process, it won't make it any less secure), but it has to be something that won't allow someone else to be able to impersonate you or the device's owner. For example, if you know the device owner's voice, you can phone them, or even start a video call with them in Riot. You can also verify someone's devices if you meet them in person.
When you're ready to verify someone's devices, you can click on their avatar in any conversation that you have with them, and Riot will show you a list of their devices. Find the device that you want to verify, and click the "Verify" button under it. This will show the device's name, ID and key.
The other person will then have to go to their user settings on the device that you want to verify, and find the device key there. You can then compare the keys, and if they match, then you can click the button saying so, and their device is now verified.
Repeat this for all of their devices that you want to verify.
This may seem like a lot of work, and it is, but there are plans to improve this in the future, before end-to-end encryption leaves Beta. For example, in the future your devices may be able to vouch for each other so that others will only have to verify one of your devices.
How does encryption work in Matrix?
Conceptually, when you first send a message in an encrypted room, your Riot client generates a random key to encrypt your message, sends the encrypted message to the server, and then sends the decryption key to all the devices in the room that should be allowed to decrypt the message. Of course, the decryption key is sent encrypted (based on¹ the device's unique key, which you verified above) so that it cannot be intercepted. The recipient then fetches the message decryption key and the encrypted message and decrypts the message.
In order to avoid having to re-send decryption keys to every device for every message you send, Matrix's encryption system includes a method for generating a new key based on an old key. So for the next message you send, your Riot client will use that method on your previous encryption key to generate a new key, and the recipients will use the same method and generate the same key, so that when you send a message encrypted using the new key, the recipients can decrypt the message without any extra key exchange. The new key will only need to be sent to any new devices that showed up in between when the first message was sent and when the second message was sent.
Riot will occasionally start from scratch, generating a new random key and sending it to all the devices in the room. This happens, for example, whenever someone leaves a room, after you have sent a certain number of messages, or after a certain amount of time.
As a result of how encryption is done in Matrix, there are several encryption and decryption keys being used. The main ones that you may need to be aware of are the device keys and the message decryption keys. The message decryption keys allow you to decrypt encrypted messages, and device keys allow you to send the decryption keys securely to other devices. Device keys are unique to each device and cannot be copied from one device to another, whereas decryption keys may be sent from one device to another, or exported from one device and imported to another, in order to allow you to read older messages.
¹ The decryption key is not encrypted directly with the device's key, but uses a more complicated method to improve security.
Help! I can't read some encrypted messages!
There are a few main possible reasons for not being able to decrypt a message.
The first possible reason is that you were not a member of the chat when the message was sent. In this case, it is by design that you cannot decrypt the message; decryption keys for messages are only sent to the users that are in the room when the message was sent.
Another possible reason is that your device was not registered at the time the message was sent. When a message is sent, the sender only sends the decryption key to devices that it knows about; when you log into a new device, that device has not yet received the decryption key for the message, and so cannot decrypt the message. (Note that when you log out and log in again, your new session is considered a new device from Riot's perspective.) There are two ways around this. One way is to export the decryption keys from another device that is able to decrypt the message, and import the keys into the new device. Another way is to verify your new device with another device: When Riot encounters a message that it cannot decrypt, it will ask your other devices for the decryption keys for that message. If you have verified that device from your other devices, then they will send the decryption key to your new device. Recent versions of Riot may automatically prompt you to verify new devices.
The final reason that you might not be able to decrypt a message is that you have encountered a bug. If you are interested in the technical details, you can see the tracking issue for encryption bugs, but the short story is that developers are aware of most (if not all) of the bugs and are working on fixing them. Some bugs can be worked around by the sender clearing Riot's cache and reloading (in their user settings), or by leaving a room and rejoining. Other bugs can only by worked around by logging out and logging back in. However, note that this will create a new device that will need to be re-verified by others, and you will probably want to export your decryption keys before logging out and import them after you log back in so that you can read old messages.
When will encryption be out of beta?
Before encryption is out of beta, the developers need to fix some of the remaining bugs that prevent people from decrypting messages that they should be able to decrypt, and to make the device verification process more usable. It is difficult to estimate when this work will be completed as the developers are working on other issues as well.