WhatsApp Alternatives: Signal vs Telegram

Cybersecurity News


Beyond media sensationalism and corporate marketing, what are the actual differences between Signal, Telegram, and WhatsApp? Here's our app-by-app breakdown and ranking.

Background

For a company that's been plagued with privacy scandals like none other, Facebook experienced yet another predictable backlash when they asked users to allow more data sharing between WhatsApp and Messenger. Millions of users took this as their cue to move to rival applications, spurred on by tweets by Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey, Edward Snowden, and their growing army of privacy advocates.

And while Facebook has since delayed the forced opt-in date from February to May, the damage (or improvement, depending on whose side you're on) has already been done. The adoption rates of rival messaging apps, Signal and Telegram, have skyrocketed, placing WhatsApp's near total dominance into question. However, popular beliefs aside, the question remains: are Signal and Telegram really more secure than WhatsApp?

To help you decide which app best meets your needs, we've provided a side-by-side comparison exploring the real differences between WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram.

Security

First things first. Both Signal and WhatsApp use the same encryption protocol, Signal Encryption, which is widely considered best in class. Signal Encryption was first developed in 2013 for a precursor of Signal, but has since been adopted by others, including Facebook and Microsoft, for their secure video and text messaging applications. Various third-party audits by Oxford University researchers (among others) have concluded that the protocol is cryptographically secure.

With that being said, much of WhatsApp's code base is closed-source and therefore hard to directly audit. Over the years, several groups have been able to hack into specific WhatsApp accounts, calling into question their overall security. For example, Jeff Bezos's account was hacked via a malicious video message, and WhatsApp's cloud-based backup feature has held flaws that enabled the FBI to access Paul Manafort's conversations. To be fair though, WhatsApp has a far larger user base than Signal and therefore serves as a more attractive target for malicious actors. As Signal grows, we should see a larger amount of malicious activity there as well.

Turning to Telegram, the Dubai-based app uses its own encryption scheme called MTProto, and with 500 million active users, can be considered a direct rival to WhatsApp. While MTProto is generally considered secure, Telegram has faced several worrisome data breaches over the years. Back in 2013, a bug was found in MTProto's key exchange scheme that opened the app up to man-in-the-middle attacks. In 2016, an attack credited to the Iranian government exposed records on 15 million Iranian accounts. Most recently, in March of 2020, an unprotected database containing 42 million user accounts (with associated user IDs and phone numbers) was found exposed. It then took the company 11 days to remove it. And so, from a strictly security standpoint, Telegram is slightly less attractive than the others.

Privacy

This is where the real differences between the apps is most apparent. Some background here is helpful.

WhatsApp was founded in 2009 by Brian Acton (with Jan Koum) and then sold to Facebook just five years later for a staggering $19 billion. And while Facebook pledged to keep the app free and private, it wasn't long before they began to search for monetization opportunities. This eventually led Acton to exit the company and set up a non-profit, Signal Foundation, to develop a suite of open-source and private applications, beginning with the Signal messaging app.

Telegram follows a similar privacy-centric journey. The founders, brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, had previously created the Russian social network VK, but when faced with government pressure, they sold their stakes, fled the country, and focused on ensuring that Telegram would remain a fast, free, and secure messaging platform. The company does plan to introduce monetization in 2021 (primarily through ads), but insists that "making profits will never be an end-goal."

In many ways then, the current showdown between WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal has been years in the making and is baked into the DNA of all three companies: WhatsApp is run by the most profitable social media empire in the world, Signal by a small non-profit dedicated to human rights and privacy, and Telegram falling somewhere in between.

But let's get down to specifics.

The only information that Signal collects from users is... no information at all. That's right. Other than your phone number (which is necessary to use the app), Signal does not collect any of your data. Moreover, Signal provides users with a suite of privacy tools including: blank notification popups, app-specific locks, face-blurring, and disappearing messages. However, Signal does (somewhat strangely) alert users when any of their contacts downloads the app, and so downloading the app results in something of an announcement to even your most distant acquaintances. Finally, Signal does not yet support encrypted phone calling, something which both WhatsApp and Telegram offer.

Turning to WhatsApp, the list of collected data is lengthy, to say the least. These include: usage and advertising data, contacts, financial info and purchase history, location, other products you've interacted with, and app performance, to name just a few. (To be clear, this information is collected for internal company use and is not publicly available. At least, until it's shared with other Facebook Companies or sold to advertisers.) While Facebook is planning on introducing some changes this year, these will mainly affect the way in which business accounts will function (i.e. sharing information between a company's WhatsApp and Messenger accounts). On the flip side, WhatsApp does provide some privacy features that Signal lacks, such as your ability to delete messages even after they've been delivered.

As usual, Telegram falls somewhere in between. The app does collect some user data, but that's limited to your name, phone number, contacts, IP address, and user ID. This is more than Signal, but far less than WhatsApp. Crucially, Telegram is planning to open the app to advertisers sometime in 2021, so users may have to cough up some cash for a premium account or look the other way as ads make an appearance. Finally, while Telegram does offer encrypted calls, these are limited to one-to-one, unlike WhatsApp which supports encrypted group calls.

Conclusion

At the present moment, Signal does provide significant privacy and security enhancements over WhatsApp and we can fully recommend those concerned with corporate overreach or data privacy to make the transition. And while Telegram may not earn points for its security, it does a far better job of honoring user privacy than the Facebook family of apps. But, perhaps more importantly, rather than searching for a one-size-fits-all, we recommend that users choose a few apps that they can then use for different purposes.

As Acton put it: "I have no desire to do all the things that WhatsApp does. My desire is to give people a choice." Perhaps Signal is best for personal and sensitive conversations, Telegram for a more friendly user experience and expanded user base, while WhatsApp is best suited for businesses eager to provide better customer service options. Familiarize yourself with all three platforms and then choose if, when, and how you'd like to use them. The choice is yours.



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