A Look at Messaging Apps

Remember the old days, when you’d get stung for attaching a photo to a text message? Smartphones connecting to wifi or using a data deal brought an end to this for many of us – messaging apps enabled us to simply send photos via these apps and thus avoid unwanted extra charges on our phone bill.

As the Web moved to Web 2.0 with the interactive nature of social media taking us beyond browsing web pages, these platforms also became a place online for us to send messages to each other, even attaching photos, videos, and links for others to easily access. And so Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the like have been embraced as messaging services as well.

But aside from Facebook offering messaging via its increasingly detached Facebook Messenger service (now used by Facebook Inc as a way to retain users who don’t want to use the Facebook site as a whole; as you can see, the site barely even mentions Facebook!), there’s also the world-renowned WhatsApp – launched by former Yahoo! engineers in 2009 after creating a name based on, you guessed it, the popular North American greeting, “What’s up?”

Just like they’d later swallow up Instagram, Facebook purchased WhatsApp, leaving WhatsApp founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton to pursue very different paths with their newfound fortune: Koum became a supporter of Donald Trump while threatening to set his bodyguards on those who referred to him as an “entrepreneur,” whereas Acton became a philanthropist donating to charitable causes, and set up the Signal Foundation, which we’ll talk about in a moment.

The issue with WhatsApp, of course (beyond being owned by Facebook Inc), was that it was not encrypted, leaving users extremely vulnerable to invasions of privacy, and even when it later became encrypted, messages could still be backed up into a cloud, delivering unencrypted copies of users’ messages to the cloud service provider. (As with many things, this was all much worse on iPhones, because even when WhatsApp users deleted photos in a chat, including deleting them from everyone’s view, iPhone’s iOS system was still retaining the photos in people’s camera roll gallery).

So what alternatives are there to WhatsApp? There are many.

While entrepreneur Jan Koum was using Facebook to support Donald Trump, his fellow WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton was criticising Facebook – and for good reason: Facebook have long been violators of people’s privacy for profit, and made billions of dollars from selling data and the associated advertising space to third parties while becoming a haven for the “fake news” Donald Trump claims to loathe. Brian Acton’s Signal Foundation developed arguably the absolute best privacy-focused messenger app in the world: Signal.

Signal is an encrypted messaging app that has enjoyed a surge in use for democratic uprisings, is used by major news outlets to receive tips, and was even recommended by whistleblower Edward Snowden. In terms of security, you don’t really get much of a better endorsement than that!

But what about beyond just security? Can the average user balance a level of privacy with user-friendly elements?

As we always say here at the FreeTech Project, we are all different, with different needs, concerns, and priorities, but one thing remains important: the freedom to choose what information to share, and when you feel like it. We all surrender some level of privacy in order to enjoy meaningful exchanges with other people – you and your neighbour will likely be willing to exchange names, but not banking information! One person may want to share all of their photos with the whole world online, another may not want to share barely any photos at all. The important thing here is the right to choose, over websites and applications taking and using your information in ways that are unethical, or simply unclear. How many people were aware that Facebook were tracking visitors to their site across other websites they were visiting on the web? But Facebook did it: they wanted to know as much as possible about their users so that their ads could truly be tailored to each and every one of them as much as possible. But they were dishonest about it, by lacking in transparency. Of course: what private investigator would want to let someone know when they’re tracking them and recording information about their daily habits? Now imagine that private investigator spying on not just you, but millions of others like you, and making millions of dollars selling the details they’ve collected on you. That’s Facebook, right?

Ultimately, it’s up to you. It’s important to make informed decisions. I personally love Telegram, and use it a lot more than I use Signal – and I’m aware that, as privacy-focused and secure as Telegram is, Signal beats it in almost every comparison in that area, but unlike Signal, I find Telegram easier to use, not just on mobile devices, but also as a desktop app; it always seems to load way faster for me than Signal, its features such as chats, channels, and groups just seem way richer, and the interface is something I prefer the look of (partly because I can customise it with so many “skins” or themes!) So I’d say, if you’re security-conscious and ethically minded, you can do far worse than Telegram, but if you’re planning on getting a highly confidential hot topic to a national newspaper or going on something like a witness relocation programme, by all means, use Signal. It’s just way more security than most of us will probably ever need, especially if an alternative is easier to use (although I still use and endorse Signal on principle because of this…is there any such thing as too much security control?)

There are many more, as well – Viber, Cyphr, Wire, Silence, to name a few. Sadly many messaging app users find themselves just adopting whatever it is that their friends or family use, or even their workplace. I found that the more I used Telegram, the more people who knew me also started using it (and as I was in their phone contacts it showed in Telegram that I’m available via that very app), and now dozens of people I know contact me primarily via Telegram! Basically, I think it’s a happy medium between user-friendly and privacy-focused.

So: do your research and find out what’s priority for you and your needs – and tell the people you care about why you’re switching to it, to see if they’ll join you!

Just please, don’t use WhatsApp!