6 secure alternatives to WhatsApp

Your data is valuable. Take care of it.

Minding people snooping over your shoulder on the train is bad enough.
Ketut Subiyanto / Pexels

Starting on May 15, WhatsApp will begin sharing some of its users’ data with its parent company, Facebook to “connect your WhatsApp experiences with other Facebook Company products.” The news has some cybersecurity experts and privacy activists sounding the alarm, as this decision means a less-secure service for WhatsApp’s 2 billion users.

The platform has a reputation as one of the most secure messaging apps out there, due to its default use of end-to-end (E2E) encryption, which protects the content of calls and messages even within the app’s own servers. WhatsApp’s updated privacy policy doesn’t change that, but everything else is up for grabs: any public information you’ve voluntarily shared (your profile picture, bio, phone number, and status updates), plus all sorts of metadata (like who you’re talking to, how often, what device you use, how long you spend on the app, and who’s in your group chats).

And if you think metadata doesn’t matter, think again—someone following you around, noting what time you left your home, what train you took, and who you visited is still creepy even if they cannot see what you’re carrying in your bag.

Should you leave WhatsApp behind?

The platforms you trust and how much you value your data is ultimately up to you, but it’s definitely worth more than you might think—and you should protect it. In the physical world, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and that’s also true on the internet. Most of the services that make their way into our day-to-day also come with a price tag—we pay in dollars or data.

If you think the service you’re getting is worth letting a multinational company snoop around in your life, you’re welcome to let them. But if you feel uncomfortable when companies change the rules to potentially access more than what you’re willing to give them, know that it’s possible to walk away.

“It’s easy to succumb to security and privacy nihilism and feel like the choices you make don’t matter,” says Gennie Gebhart, acting activism director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “That’s what the surveillance giants of today—not just Facebook, but also Google, Amazon, and countless shadowy data brokers—want you to think. Don’t buy it.”

The web is wide and diverse, and there are plenty of platforms that will satisfy your messaging needs without asking you to disclose everything about yourself. It’s just a matter of looking.

Signal

The golden standard of secure messaging apps, Signal is a stripped-down platform designed to put privacy and security first. In fact, the app’s Open Whisper Signal protocol is also embedded within the code of competitors such as Telegram, Viber, and Skype.

Signal is free, open-source, and operated by The Signal Foundation—a non-profit with a mission to “develop open-source privacy technology.” Brian Acton, one of WhatsApp’s founders, left Facebook (reportedly on bad terms) after the company acquired his platform and donated $50 million to create the foundation. It’s one of the main reasons users trust the app, as there’s no big tech company behind it.

The platform supports texting, video and voice calls, and file-sharing. Privacy-wise, you can set your messages to self-destruct at any time from 5 seconds after they’re read to a week after you send them. E2E encryption protects everything you share through Signal by default, and the foundation says it doesn’t keep any backups on its servers. The US government subpoenaed user data in 2016, but authorities only got their hands on the dates accounts were created, dates of last connections, and phone numbers.

Telegram

Immediately after WhatsApp’s announcement, Telegram’s user base started growing, and the app reached 25 million users in mid-January. Such quick growth is logical, as the app is one of the most well-known secure messaging platforms, and at the time of writing it was the most-downloaded free app on both Apple’s App Store and Google Play.

The app supports texting, voice and video calls, public channels, and file-sharing, with an interface highly similar to WhatsApp’s iOS appearance, so switching over should be seamless.

The platform also uses E2E encryption, but not by default. Only Secret Chats, which are one-to-one, are protected by this protocol. These chats leave no trace: Telegram’s servers erase the encrypted messages once they’ve been delivered, and you can have sent-messages self-destruct after a specific time. Secret Chats cannot be forwarded, and users can’t take screenshots of them. This is great from a privacy standpoint, but it also means that all other communications (group chats, channels, and non-secret chats) are cloud-based and encryption protection ends when they hit the server.

The lack of widespread E2E encryption is meant to allow users instant access to backups, no matter when they joined a channel or group chat, or what device they’re using, Telegram says. It also argues that government agencies might target users using “niche apps” such as Signal, assuming that anyone opting for that high level of privacy has something to hide. Having less-secure encryption as the default, Telegram says, protects users from unwanted surveillance.

As opposed to WhatsApp, which uses third-party servers like iCloud or Google Drive to store backups—giving Apple and Google the ability to manage that information—Telegram’s backups live on its own servers around the world. It claims chats, no matter what type, are all secured the same way, but because the encryption key for regular chats is stored on the same server, Telegram technically also has access to it and can decrypt your messages.

Even though Telegram emphasized its commitment to security by updating its privacy policy to protect the identity of Hong Kong protesters in 2019, Gebhart says that commitment should be taken with a grain of salt.

“Telegram doesn’t have a great track record of responding to high-risk users,” she says. “My impression is that a lot of Telegram’s ‘secure’ reputation comes from its association with the Hong Kong protests, but the app was also useful in that environment for a lot of specific reasons, like no phone number requirement or the support for massive groups.”

This last feature, which allows users to create chats that can impressively host up to 200,000 members, is a major reason the platform has been criticized. These unmoderated public channels have also become fertile ground for the distribution of misinformation and illegal content, such as revenge and child pornography. WhatsApp had a similar problem, which is why they eventually limited message-forwarding and the size of group chats. Telegram has refused to do so.

Telegram is free for iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Linux, and on the web.

Dust

Less popular than Signal or Telegram, Dust is a good option if you want to keep your content as secure as you can. The app works as an E2E encrypted messaging platform, a privacy-focused functionality that lets users hide their tracks online, and a monitoring system that will instantly alert you if any of your passwords are compromised as part of a data leak.

By default, messages (or “dusts”) disappear from the app’s servers right after they’re sent, and chat histories are automatically erased from your phone every 24 hours. On top of that, you (or your contact) can delete messages on both ends of the conversation with just one tap, and you can sign up by using only your phone number.

There’s a social aspect to Dust, in which you can gain followers and send out blasts, but you don’t have to engage with any of that if you’re only interested in using its messaging feature. The bad news is that the platform doesn’t currently support video or voice calls—only texting and file sharing—which may be a deal-breaker if you want a more comprehensive service.

Dust is free for iOS and Android.

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