The growing importance of chat applications can easily be seen by the number of attempts to infiltrate them (or to scam users). The most recent is that of the Russian government which, on more than one occasion, asked Telegram to give it the encryption keys of citizens registered with the service. The company didn’t give in, if nothing else than for obvious technical reasons (end-to-end encryption is no joke), and is now being banned throughout the entire country.
But getting a glimpse into the platform where text, photo, and video messages are shared is somewhat the dream of every government in the world, as well as of every jealous partner, every father not too convinced of his daughter’s new boyfriend, and anyone who has time to waste butting into other people’s business.
The recent boom of chat platforms is due to two triggering factors. The first: the rapid spread of smartphones and the internet. The second: the decreed death of SMS messages and the consolidation of more interesting and “richer” methods of remote communication.
The risk of getting lost among the myriad of similar applications is high. In fact, behind WhatsApp lies a dense thicket of more or less famous software that are not always so similar, but have their own following. Messenger also deserves a special mention as a spin-off of the most populous social network, Facebook, and is practically used “only” by members of Zuckerberg’s network, with its several billion active users.
Now let’s have a look at the most used chat apps, all compatible with iOS and Android, and try to understand the differences and what methods they use to protect users’ text, photo, and video messages, a “detail” that everyone should consider before opening up their own digital world to the first developer they come across.
Facebook’s foray into the world of mobile messaging is called Messenger. It’s a dedicated client that’s based upon the existing chat network, adding further multimedia communication features. Users access the app through Facebook and can send others normal chat messages as well as voice and video messages and calls. There is also a Lite version for just Androids, which offers a more streamlined experience that makes it more affordable in terms of data usage. End-to-end encryption is an option, but it still has to be manually activated for every single conversation by choosing Secret Conversation in the chat window when messaging a contact.
A simple set-up, automatic synchronization with your phone contacts, and an experience rich in features and free of advertisements make WhatsApp an extremely popular messaging app. Users can send text, photo, and video messages as well as voice memos, benefiting from end-to-end encryption and two-step verification, which periodically asks for a password in order to access the app. It’s not very clear if and when the company will weave its members’ data in with Facebook profiles (it’s part of the same group), even though the European Union has blocked Zuckerberg from doing so, at least for the moment.
A mobile messaging app for the post-Snowden era. Telegram was designed for those who know what it means to secure their digital ego. The application offers a fast and encrypted chat service, with client-server encryption for standard chats. On the other hand, secret chats don’t allow anyone to violate the messages’ privacy, while self-destructing conversations between both individuals and groups ensure everything (even shared elements) disappears after an allotted period of time. Telegram has been banned in Russia since 2018, after it refused to let the Russian secret service decipher messengers and subsequent government attempts to block it. However, it has remained popular in Russia thanks to users combining it with a VPN for continued access.
Developed by Open Whisper Systems, Signal is another messaging solution driven by privacy.It uses military-level end-to-end encryption to protect messages, strengthened by an open-source platform that’s constantly monitored by its team of developers and improved in its defense systems. It’s no coincidence that Signal is the preferred app of hacktivists and leading figures in the world of free expression, such as Edward Snowden, the principal “Datagate” informant.
With more than 700 million users, WeChat dominates the Chinese web and is also seeing success at a global level. The app offers users text messages, video and voice calls, group chats, and multimedia attachments enhanced with eccentric features such as “Friend Radar”, “People Nearby,” and “Shake” to quickly find new people online nearby. It’s one of the few apps to boast a client for Android Wear and Apple Watch, even if it lacks end-to-end encryption technology. Its security relies on client-to-server and server-to-client protection, and also enjoys an accreditation from the expert privacy organization TRUSTe. Additionally, it’s certified by the strict ISO 270001-2013 international compliance standard, which means it’s extremely difficult for hackers to breach the app, even Chinese ones.
Another Asian project that has left its mark is the Japanese app Line, which has more than 600 million users all over the world. Its strong point is a series of stickers you can embed in chats, in addition to a timeline system similar to a social network. The app supports group conversations and calls of up to 200 participants, as well as the option to call mobile and landline numbers with a special credit. In addition, Line allows you to follow your favorite brands and personalities through official channels, so you can always stay up-to-date on the latest news and events. It introduced expanded end-to-end encryption in 2016 for group chats, video calls, and voice.
Better known for its audio and video capabilities, Skype is still a great way to quickly chat with just text. The mobile version was recently revamped, making it more youthful and colorful. Compared with its competition, however, it remains a software primarily utilized by corporate users, specifically in the Business version. Conversation security is ensured by TLS and AES encryption, which, however, does not come into play with calls to landlines and mobile numbers.
Similar to WhatsApp, Viber uses your telephone number as your login and to add contacts already in your phonebook. The app boasts a more mature audience and is useful for sending texts, photos, voice messages, and videos, as well as for calling landline numbers through the Viber Out function. In addition, it introduced end-to-end encryption some time ago, making conversations secure.
The mobile multi-media app known as Snapchat has finally gotten end-to-end encryption – for some limited features. Snapchat is best known as a messaging plus service with a range of filters for user pictures. However, the new encryption only applies to photos and videos (to prevent them from being passed on) and not to text messages.
So which messaging app is most secure? Messaging apps fall into three basic categories, at least when judged by a security criteria.
The top tier of messaging apps – Signal, Telegram, and Viber – are messaging apps only with security integrated deep into their DNA. Their owners have a good reputation when it comes to valuing user privacy and security.
The second tier of apps includes WhatsApp and the Korean-based Line. While offering end-to-end encryption, there are questions over how these companies can be influenced by outside parties. In particular, Line has come under political pressure and reportedly done key-word filtering and emoj censorship in some countries. WhatsApp has a good reputation historically as a stand-alone app, but it is now owned by Facebook. It is not clear how this ownership link will develop in the future. We placed Skype in this category as not all communication streams are encrypted.
As a third tier, we’ve placed Messenger, WeChat, and SnapChat. Each of these three do not have automatic end-to-end encryption for chats and we see this as the base level for user security.