Tuesday Tip: 5 Good, Easy-to-Use Secure Messaging Apps
Should you be using a secure messaging app? Isn’t plain-old texting safe enough? Do you really need the privacy promised by an app like Signal or WhatsApp?
On the one hand, there is a low risk that your SMS text messages will be hacked. Americans send 26 billion texts every day, which is some serious safety in numbers. On the other hand, you’ll find dozens of text-spying apps via a quick Google search, so someone who’s determined to read your texts does have the tools available.
On the third hand, why not use a secure messaging app? They’re free, easy, and provide very strong security for communications of all sorts, from texting to photo sharing to voice and video calling.
A good, secure messaging app provides end-to-end encryption for messages you send and receive. The technology is complex – an algorithm encrypts messages you send so they can’t be read while in transit then decrypts them at the receiver’s end – but using a secure messaging app is simple. Just download and install it on your phone and you can communicate securely with anyone else who has the same app. The messages aren’t stored on company servers and can’t be read by spies or mined by advertisers.
Before we get into our list of five good, easy-to-use secure messaging apps, let’s talk about Facebook Messenger.
There’s a good chance you use Facebook Messenger. Over a billion people do every day. But be aware that Messenger does not provide end-to-end encryption by default (neither do Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram or Skype). To enable end-to-end encryption, you have to turn on Secret Conversations in the settings. In Secret Conversations, you can send messages, photos, videos and voice files. Secret Conversations does not support group messages, payments, or voice and video calls.
Like WhatsApp (which is owned by Facebook), Messenger is very convenient because so many other people use it. But if you do use it, do so with the knowledge that Facebook collects loads of data on you via Messenger, same as it does at your Facebook account. You might dislike this practice or you might not care – some like seeing Facebook’s “relevant” ads. But it’s important to be aware of this so you can make informed decisions.
Here are five good, widely used secure messaging apps that provide end-to-end encryption to protect your messages from hackers, service providers and the government.
Even these apps’ makers can’t access your messages. In addition to secure messaging, all these apps offer voice and video calling, file sharing, and (other than Apple iMessage) a self-destruct setting that allows you to make your messages disappear after a set time.
iMessage is Apple’s built-in messaging service and thus available only to users of Apple devices. But, since that’s a lot of people, it’s worth including here. iMessage provides end-to-end encryption for all messages and attachments sent and received via the app. But keep in mind that messages exchanged with Android users do not get end-to-end encryption. They’re treated as simple text messages.
WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app in the world, used by over 1.5 billion people every day. It’s free and available to Android and iOS users. It provides end-to-end encryption by default – you don’t have to turn it on, it’s always there. You can back-up your messages to Google Drive if you choose, so you can restore them on a new Android device.
WhatsApp is, however, owned by Facebook, which aggressively mines your data to serve you ads. And in late 2018, Facebook announced that, sometime in 2019, WhatsApp will begin showing ads alongside its popular Status feature. This breaks a promise Facebook made back in 2016, when it bought WhatsApp, to adhere to WhatsApp’s founding principles to keep it ad-free. Just Facebook being Facebook.
Signal is different from most other secure messaging apps. Its end-to-end encryption engine is open source, which means the code is continuously reviewed for bugs and loopholes. It’s sort of the Linux of the secure-messaging world. Signal is supported by grants and donations, which means the app has no ads, no affiliate marketing, and no tracking. Its security platform is used by WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.
Signal is free and its interface is refreshingly simple. Signal is the favorite messaging app of Edward Snowden, who knows a thing or two about security. And last year, when WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton quit Facebook in protest against Facebook’s plan to put ads on WhatsApp, he joined Signal.
Viber, which is used by close to 1 billion people, provides end-to-end encryption by default. It’s free and available to Android and iOS users. Viber does come with ads and in-app purchases. It also leans toward the young user, offering a large library of stickers (some free, some not) directly on the interface. Which is cool if you’re a sticker fan but distracting if you’re not.
In addition to its Secret Chats feature (which makes messages disappear after a set time), Viber also lets you manually delete messages you’ve sent – from your own phone and also from the phones of the people you’ve sent it to. The company is owned by Japanese e-commerce and internet giant Rakuten and based in Luxembourg.
Telegram is a cloud-based app, which brings advantages and disadvantages. On the upside, it delivers messages very quickly (faster than any other secure-messaging app, it claims) and allows you to share an unlimited number of photos, videos and files, including .doc, .zip and .mp3 – up to 1.5 GB each.
On the downside, cloud storage means Telegram does not offer end-to-end encryption by default. To get it, you have to turn on Secret Chats in the app’s settings. All Secret Chats are device-specific and never enter the Telegram cloud. Messages in Secret Chats cannot be forwarded, and when you delete messages on your end of the conversation, they will also be deleted at the receiver’s end.
Telegram’s code is open source. It’s free, serves no ads and does not push in-app purchases. Telegram is owned by its founder, Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov, who in 2014 imposed exile on himself when allies of Vladimir Putin took over VKontakte, his social networking site, which is also Russia’s largest. He’s now a resident of Saint Kitts and Nevis.
Your mobile provider
A lot of people join CREDO Mobile because they care about their privacy – and they know CREDO is the only mobile phone company to receive a 5-star rating in the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s most recent “Who Has Your Back?” on privacy. If you’re not already a member of CREDO Mobile – and you care about your privacy, consider switching today. It’s easy to do.