Updated: May 24, 2022
In today’s world, a large part of our lives is spent online, especially when communicating with friends, relatives, and even colleagues. Text messages, emails, phone calls, social media, and specialized messenger apps are how we keep our busy lives on track. With all the different platforms, privacy and security are two of the most important concerns. Let’s take a quick journey to explore the top three secure messaging platforms, WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram.
The WhatsApp Blowout
WhatsApp is the largest messaging platform globally and has faced backlash over the past year from its two billion users for its relatively new security policy. People have jumped shipped and shifted to other social & messaging platforms, with Signal and Telegram their top choices. Signal has over 40 million active monthly users, with much of its following generated in early 2021 alone. WhatsApp’s ongoing disaster has led people to question how safe these social and messaging apps really are and what else is out there.
WhatsApp’s policy came into question when Apple highlighted the extensive amounts of metadata collected by the messenger app from its 2 billion consumer base. The Apple privacy labels showed just how much personal information WhatsApp has access to and was allowed to use including Contact Information, User Content, Usage data, Location, etc. Things got worse when a change of terms allowed Meta (Facebook) business customers to talk and sell to WhatsApp users.
The change wasn’t a real security issue, but the message was vaguely worded, adding fuel to the fire. Although WhatsApp has been engaged in damage control ever since a rise in the popularity of Signal and Telegram tells us that it is not working.
The biggest marketing factor for messaging apps, and especially WhatsApp, is the end-to-end encryption it offers for messages. These encrypted messages give you the protection to talk to any of your contacts without a third-party having access to them, not even the platform you’re using. These protected messages are why you aren’t flooded with advertisements for bakeries if you happen to talk to your friend about the best bakeries in town. The feature becomes more necessary when dealing with businesses and sensitive information.
One major disadvantage of WhatsApp is they do not encrypt the backups of your chats, cloud and local. They also do not encrypt the metadata used to transmit the communication between two endpoints, sender and receiver.
What Exactly is End-To-End Encryption?
At a high level, End-to-End Encryption turns your texts and calls into jumbled pieces of gibberish. Only the intended receiver can decrypt, or read the message. Even the app makers cannot decode your conversations, making this protocol important.
WhatsApp vs. Signal vs. Telegram: Which App Is Safer?
For all its flaws, WhatsApp is still secure. It was the platform to popularize the encryption protocol, which is something it delivers on. The main criticism that WhatsApp has taken the heat for is the huge amount of personal data it is privy to. Apart from that, WhatsApp uses its own proprietary deployment. However, the cloud storage backup option stores chat history on Google’s or Apple’s cloud is its greatest security weakness.
Signal- The New Way to Chat
Signal has been generating buzz ever since the WhatsApp incident. But what is Signal?
Signal is a messaging app for iOS, Android, Windows, Mac, and Linux. The app was developed back in 2014 by Moxie Marlinspike, the former CEO of the Signal Foundation. Although the app was launched earlier, it gained attention in 2017 when WhatsApp co-founder, Brian Acton left and invested almost $50 million in Signal.
Signal is a non-profit company with the tagline ‘Speak Freely’, and “Say "hello" to a different messaging experience. An unexpected focus on privacy, combined with all of the features you expect.” Based on the main feature of end-to-end encryption, Signal’s promise of privacy and security for its users has been its biggest selling point.
The now-popular app shares several similar features with WhatsApp, including sending messages, audio, and video calling with friends. You can also share photos, videos, and links, as in all other messaging apps. As of December 2020, Signal also introduced the encrypted group video calling option.
So What’s Special About Signal?
Although you will find many similar features, Signal stands out from the rest regarding privacy and security. It doesn’t just offer end-to-end encryption. Signal’s protocol is completely open-source. This means that it can be evaluated for vulnerabilities by external security researchers. This measure also makes it more transparent.
Apart from that, Signal does not allow cloud backup as an added precaution. Your data is not stored anywhere, so it remains completely protected, countering WhatsApp’s biggest weakness.
Like Snapchat, Signal has the option of sending disappearing messages. You can turn disappearing messages on for individual chats and set the time from 5 seconds up to one week.
However, the primary focus of Signal is privacy. Additionally, the app only asks for minimal user data, without compromising on the other messaging features. The data collected is limited and is not linked to your identity. You remain anonymous for the most part, using only your phone number to create an account.
You can opt for additional privacy features by changing the settings on the app from your device. Some of these are-
● Relay Calls: Calls go through a Signal server, hiding your IP address from your contact.
● Toggle Read Receipts on or off
● Toggle typing indicators on or off
● Turn off link previews from websites
The Cons of Signal
With all its amazing advantages and recent fame, Signal does have a few things to work on. For starters, possibly because of the huge jump in users and regular updates, the app is susceptible to some issues such as availability. However, none affect security or privacy.
While not having chat backup protects your privacy, you could lose your conversations. However, most Signal users value privacy and security the most which make this almost a moot point.
An Insight Into Telegram
Telegram was founded by brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov in 2013 in Russia. It remains privately owned but there is talk of further development and funding in recent times.
Telegram may be a step down from WhatsApp, as far as security and privacy measures go. Telegram does not provide end-end encryption for all its chats. However, users may enable this feature by selecting the ‘secret chat’ option for each individual chat. These specific messages bypass the Telegram servers. This, however, does not apply to group conversations.
Telegram has its own servers where the ‘non-secret’ messages are backed up and stored. The protocol used by Telegram, MTProto, is proprietary and only partly open-source. So, technically speaking, Telegram can access your information- which does not mean it does, but it can. However, there hasn’t been a reason to think otherwise which is why people still prefer Telegram.
The data required to use the Telegram platform is linked to you. This includes your name. phone number, contacts, and user ID.
Other Apps: GroupMe
Given the recent unpopularity of WhatsApp, several other messaging apps have also started to gain traction, albeit, not as much as Signal and Telegram. Case in point- GroupMe. GroupMe is Microsoft’s second attempt at creating a social platform, the first one being Skype. While GroupMe is not as well-known and has fewer features, it has a decent framework to build on.
The biggest advantages of using GroupMe are that it can be used by people who don’t own smartphones, it has an excellent web client, allows IFTTT Integration, integrated calendars, etc.
However, it does not provide an encryption protocol, is not suitable for group calls, and drains the device’s battery quickly.
Signal is by far the best when it comes to privacy and security. It is a sure step up from WhatsApp based on security protocols alone. Although WhatsApp has assured its users of the safety of its platform, there is still some skepticism. Additionally, WhatsApp seems to be moving in a commercial direction. Meta, the parent company, has long-term plans to combine the platforms of WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram- which can’t be good for its current users.
WhatsApp also lacks the multi-device compatibility that Signal and Telegram provide.
On the other hand, Signal prioritizes security above all. With a secure app infrastructure and its alternative features for additional privacy, it's easy to see why Signal is now becoming the top preference for everyone. Telegram, on the other hand, is not as secure as either of the other apps but has its own benefits.
The bigger question for both newly popular companies- Telegram and Signal- is how they will accommodate their increasing consumer base. Currently, both platforms are funded by billionaires and donations from users and supporters. Even with the continuous updates and servers, it will be immensely difficult to compete with WhatsApp’s support, following, and resources.
Telegram has publicly communicated that it may start charging for premium services, whereas The Signal Foundation’s position on how it will manage its continually soaring user base is unclear.