WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal: Where Do You Go For Secure Messaging?

Karan Kamble

Jan 13, 2021, 11:51 AM | Updated 11:51 AM IST

What’s your pick out of the three messaging apps – WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal?
What’s your pick out of the three messaging apps – WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal?
  • Changes to WhatsApp’s privacy policy have spurred an exodus of users from the messaging platform.
  • Signal and Telegram have emerged as leading alternatives.
  • The world's go-to messaging app for years, WhatsApp, has landed in the soup on its own accord after a recent privacy policy update suggested more sharing of app data with parent company Facebook in the future. The implication of Facebook acquiring and using private message content to pursue targeted advertising has stoked concerns among the app's users, who number in 200 crore as of October 2020, and has led them in search of a more secure, trustworthy alternative.

    On 12 January, WhatsApp did come back with a clarification. The company said that the policy update did not affect the privacy of messages shared with friends or family and that "end-to-end encryption" still applied to private messages.

    End-to-end encryption means that the messages passed between sender and receiver are coded so as to be unreadable for everyone except the two parties in question. The encryption is there to ensure no one is able to eavesdrop on conversations occurring over texts.

    Stating the case, WhatsApp head Will Cathcart took to Twitter to say: "With end-to-end encryption, we cannot see your private chats or calls, and neither can Facebook. We’re committed to this technology and committed to defending it globally."

    The update, though, is set to affect WhatsApp communications occurring between individuals and businesses. Considering the direction that WhatsApp is taking, sending messages to businesses is expected to increase in the future anyway. In that case, the clarification may not be enough to calm people's nerves.

    WhatsApp explains: "Messaging with businesses is different than messaging with your family or friends. Some large businesses need to use hosting services to manage their communication. Which is why we’re giving businesses the option to use secure hosting services from Facebook to manage WhatsApp chats with their customers, answer questions, and send helpful information like purchase receipts."

    "But whether you communicate with a business by phone, email, or WhatsApp, it can see what you’re saying and may use that information for its own marketing purposes, which may include advertising on Facebook," the clarification says, adding that "conversations with businesses that are choosing to use hosting services from Facebook" will be clearly labelled.

    The challenge for users now is that, besides having to contend with a change in the terms of service, they have to either agree with the policy or disagree. If they aren't on board with the new policy update, the only option available to them is deleting the app, and they would have to do that before 8 February.

    Naturally, WhatsApp users are struggling with doubts about how secure WhatsApp messenger really is. It doesn't help that Facebook's data-collection hunger is already well known to the public. This is quite a sticky situation.

    But concerned folks aren't hanging back. Many have already embarked on a search, nay pursuit, of WhatsApp alternatives. And so far, two apps have made incredible gains in attention, traffic, and downloads – Telegram and Signal.

    On Google Play, Signal sits at the top with "Telegram" at eighth in the list of "Top free" apps, while in the "Trending" category, they are one and two respectively (as of 13 January).

    On 7 January, Signal reported a delay in delivery of verification codes "across several providers because so many new people are trying to join Signal right now...". They resolved the problem within a day and were ready for the surge.

    For its part, Telegram kept taking digs openly at WhatsApp. The cheeky social media work has kept Twitterati entertained.

    WhatsApp Alternatives Signal And Telegram

    Like WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram can be used to send text messages and make voice or video calls – either between two persons or in a group. Instant messaging staples like emojis and stickers are available and quite a few features are shared. But the significant difference comes from the extent of privacy accorded with each app.

    Signal has been carrying the reputation of being a secure messaging platform for years. This recognition has stood on the shoulders of high-profile backers such as American whistle-blower and privacy advocate Edward Snowden, who tweeted in 2015 that he used Signal every day.

    He returned recently with a similar message about Signal on Twitter after a user asked, "do we really trust signal?"

    Endorsements have also come from Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey. Technology entrepreneur Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX) too put his weight behind Signal. And a host of Indian technology entrepreneurs have done the same.

    Signal is supported by the United States-based non-profit organisation Signal Technology Foundation. It is a privacy-focused, open-source project that runs on grants and donations. There aren't any advertisements on the app and it is available to use free of charge. New users only need to provide a contact number.

    Four days ago on Reddit AMA ("Ask Me Anything"), the Signal messenger team said: "One of the reasons we opted for organizing as a nonprofit is that it aligned with our want to create a business model for a technology that wasn’t predicated on the need for personal data in any way."

    The open-source nature of Signal means that the software can be copied or downloaded by others, especially experts, inviting scrutiny in the interest of security.

    Security researcher Moxie Marlinspike and roboticist Stuart Anderson kick-started the early versions of Signal (WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton got involved later, in 2018). After years of development as separate technology services, "RedPhone" encrypted voice calling app and "TextSecure" encrypted texting programme, Signal was unified and released in November 2015.

    Soon, technology giants Facebook, Google, and Microsoft were using the "Signal Protocol", the term for Signal technology enabling end-to-end encryption and made available for use by other businesses.

    Telegram is a popular alternative to WhatsApp and Signal. It was launched for iOS and Android two months apart in 2013. The platform has been supported all these years by the Durov brothers, Pavel and Nikolai, entrepreneur and programmer respectively.

    Pavel has taken care of the company expenses since the beginning by digging into his personal savings. But as Telegram has grown, and will likely grow more steeply now, the company is looking at different ways to generate revenue starting this year. Either way, says Pavel Durov, "Most users will hardly notice any change".

    One of the ideas is to add additional features to Telegram that will be paid for by premium users. (Read Pavel Durov's growth plans.)

    Telegram states that among its top priorities are "protecting... private conversations from snooping third parties, such as officials, employers, etc." and "protecting... personal data from third parties, such as marketers, advertisers, etc." These two areas invite worry in case of the continued use of WhatsApp.

    However, there is a difference between Telegram and Signal, and probably significantly so. Unlike Signal, not all Telegram chats have end-to-end encryption. Only the secret chats have end-to-end encryption while the regular chats have end-to-server encryption.

    Can Telegram be compelled to part ways with user data for whatever reason, say, by governments?

    The detailed company FAQ explains: "...Telegram uses a distributed infrastructure. Cloud chat data is stored in multiple data centers around the globe that are controlled by different legal entities spread across different jurisdictions. The relevant decryption keys are split into parts and are never kept in the same place as the data they protect. As a result, several court orders from different jurisdictions are required to force us to give up any data."

    Because of this feature, it would be a really hard ask to get Telegram to disclose data. And even then, secret chats using end-to-end encryption would not be disclosed in any case since they will leave no trace on the company servers.

    Telegram also challenges anyone who claims that messages on the app can be deciphered to enter a competition and prove it – they stand to win $300,000.

    Telegram is now a leading candidate along with Signal for the messaging app switch after the WhatsApp exodus.

    On 12 January, Pavel Durov reported on his Telegram channel that the app had surpassed 500 million monthly active users in the first week of January and as many as 25 million new users had joined in the last 72 hours alone.

    He also reiterated his message from a 2018 post: "Unlike other popular apps, Telegram doesn’t have shareholders or advertisers to report to. We don’t do deals with marketers, data miners or government agencies."

    "For us, Telegram is an idea; it is the idea that everyone on this planet has a right to be free."

    Karan Kamble writes on science and technology. He occasionally wears the hat of a video anchor for Swarajya's online video programmes.

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