The New Messaging App War

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past month, you've probably heard about WhatsApp's new change in privacy policy which says they will share your information with Facebook even if you do not have a Facebook account.

There is no way to opt-out except by deleting your account and uninstalling the app. And it turns out, in a surprisingly positive turn of events, quite a few people are choosing that option.

Over the past month, a surprising number of less technical friends, family, colleagues, and people I met once a few years ago are signing up to competing messengers Signal and Telegram. And it's not just me. I even asked my parents, who are in their 60's and far from being tech nerds, and they too have seen many people they know sign up to Signal or Telegram.

In fact so many people I know did it that I finally felt comfortable deleting WhatsApp once and for all.

Even Elon Musk chipped in.

This is a message I personally have been spreading for years. I have managed to get some close friends, my girlfriend, and a few family members to use Signal. I found that if they weren't happy sticking to Signal, they did generally stick to Telegram as it's essentially WhatsApp with a load more features (plus, it isn't owned by Facebook).

However as any cryptography buff or privacy nerd will quickly tell you, Signal's encryption is objectively superior to Telegram's. In fact while Telegram does have optional “secret chats” using end-to-end encryption, by default all messages are stored in the cloud and only encrypted on the server-side, and you cannot have an end-to-end encrypted group chat in Telegram at all.

Some claim WhatsApp is better for privacy than Telegram on this basis, as WhatsApp claims to have implemented the Signal protocol. But in reality it's not so simple. For one thing, WhatsApp is totally closed source. There is no way to verify the encryption hasn't been backdoored, weakened, or there isn't just a way for WhatsApp to download the messages of any user. Telegram has been particularly vocal in attacking WhatsApp's privacy record, and with good reason – governments keep using it to hack into people's phones.

Even putting this and the increasing levels of data sharing with Facebook aside, WhatsApp bugs you a lot to enable cloud backups. These are not protected by end-to-end encryption. WhatsApp tells you this themselves when you activate it. Yet they nag you to enable it constantly if you don't use it. As a result, the majority of their users have it enabled. Even if you disable it, odds are the person you're talking to has it turned on.

This is the “invisible” backdoor in WhatsApp that everyone who trusts it (a number growing smaller and smaller, thankfully) seems to forget about entirely, so it's well worth pointing out.

Telegram, of course, has much the same problem. All messages are stored in the cloud by default. They defend this by claiming that most people want to be able to backup their chats and it's better to use their cloud than a third party one as WhatsApp does – it uses iCloud on the iPhone or Google Drive on Android. The result is Telegram does indeed give you more control over what's in their cloud. For example, you can delete a message in a cloud chat and it'll be removed from all devices in that conversation, and secret chats don't get backed up.

But you shouldn't have to trust any company's cloud to begin with and you shouldn't have to use a secret chat option most people won't bother with. This is where Signal shines. It is fully open source and uses end-to-end encryption so there is no reason you need to place trust in Signal at all.

Signal has grown the most since the WhatsApp exodus. Telegram sure has too, but Telegram already had a large userbase and was already slowly growing worldwide. Signal was barely a blip as far as the broader messenger landscape is concerned. Now it is, at the time of writing, the number one most downloaded communication app in the UK (see header image) with Telegram just behind and WhatsApp dropped down below both.

If you look at top free apps in Google's Play Store without narrowing it down by category, this is what you see. WhatsApp is so far down you have to scroll to see it. Same with other Facebook owned apps like Messenger and Instagram.

Here's to hoping this trend continues as more and more people become sensibly distrusting of Facebook. Whether it's because of privacy abuses, data mining, constant advertising, or algorithms designed to manipulate how you act, people are finally waking up to the true price of Facebook and the other platforms it owns.

I am not sure if Signal or Telegram will end up taking the crown. But what is pretty clear is that normal, everyday people are actively saying no to Facebook and yes to Signal and other alternatives.

It's about time.

P.S. I'd also like to give Session and Element a mention. I don't think they'll gain the mass appeal Signal and Telegram are gaining because they aren't designed for no hassle ease of use in the same way. But they've picked up more of a cult following amongst the techie types recently and I have to admit Status, in particular, is pretty handy for certain uses.

For all intents and purposes Session is effectively Signal but without the phone numbers. This does mean that not only do you have to track people down and tell them to add you, but Session does not rely on usernames, but instead long strings of random characters or QR codes.

As I said, I don't see it being widely adopted outside the tech community.

However this does mean it has extra privacy as it stores absolutely zero information about you. Not even your IP address because it tunnels your traffic through the Loki network, a modern and at this point still fairly experimental onion router project – yes the same kind of tech used by Tor – powered by a cryptocurrency and a blockchain.

This also makes it decentralised, because although it's not a federated network of people running their own personal instances like Mastodon or Matrix, it is using a network of nodes run by volunteers around the world. Well, I say volunteers – they get paid in cryptocurrency in return for helping the network.

It's a bit of a complex project with many elements to it, but ultimately for Session this means, just like Tor, your messages are all bounced around multiple nodes before they are sent or received. So as well as not giving away so much as a username, not even the person you're speaking to can find out your real IP address. This makes Session perfectly ideal for talking to people you'd like to keep up with online but don't necessarily feel comfortable sharing your phone number or email with.

For something more accessible to the normies, there is Wire which also uses a protocol very similar to Signal's and requires only a username and email to sign up. Wickr uses a different encryption protocol but it's end-to-end and again does not require you to provide much information to sign up, although you're optionally asked if you want to provide more info and allow it access to your contacts to help find people using it, this is opt-in and it chiefly uses usernames.

If you use Telegram you can also choose a username to give out and set your privacy settings so only people you choose can see your phone number. This isn't as private as the other options, but it's more likely to see wide use among the general population.

To be honest, anything that isn't owned by Facebook becoming the new default method of communication is a win to me. That's what I'm happiest about every time I see some random person has just joined Signal or Telegram.

#Facebook #WhatsApp #Signal #Telegram #Session #Matrix #Element #Wickr #Wire #privacy #communication #technology