Messaging Apps and Security
WhatsApp. Telegram. Confide. There are a myriad of messaging apps on the market; not to mention standard text and of course the 800-pound gorilla of messaging; Facebook Messenger. We’re living in a time where personal and business communication has transitioned from phone calls to emails to now texts in the span of ten years. There is the expectation that you will respond to the sender in minutes (or if a millennial messages you, seconds), and until the next phase in communication appears (ex., Alexa skills, and voice) the messaging apps will be the fastest way to reach people. Apps today have developed significantly from the days of Blackberry Message (BBM), but all operate on the same basic principles.
It is because of how intertwined the messaging apps are in our daily lives that it is of utmost importance that we know the messages we send are safe. Below we’ll cover some of the popular messaging apps and our thoughts on how safe they really are.
⚫️ WhatsApp: The ultimate international messaging app with over a billion users globally (the app’s popularity has soared outside the US in developing countries – which was one of Facebook’s reason for acquiring the app) and is the standard bearer for messaging. In 2016 WhatsApp rolled out the end-to-end encryption feature which protects both senders and receivers (as well as group chats) from outside hacking and set the standard for privacy. Depending on where you stand on the issue of privacy (i.e. protecting our liberties vs. terrorists using the apps to communicate) end-to-end encryption has become the norm and does add a layer of safety. Where it gets tricky is who owns WhatsApp, which is Facebook, and what is happening with that massive amount of data. There are some places such as Europe which has not allowed Facebook to use the data from Whatsapp because of regulation, but in general, there is the feeling that we’re leaving the cat to watch over the milk.
Safety Takeaway: Whatsapp is a solid platform which has progressively gotten safer. It is common practice in many business settings, particularly when doing international business to use this app when communicating (whether that be text or voice). We believe it is overall a safe messaging app, though time will tell what happens with our privacy when Facebook is the owner.
⚫️ Telegram: This messaging app created in Russia has been around for some time but has become popular recently in part because of the growth of the cryptocurrency community (as well as raising its own ICO, the largest in history with over billion dollars raised). Many tech-minded people have flocked to this app, though honestly, it is similar to WhatsApp but with some nice additional features (like the ability to ‘pin’ messages in group chats). Like Snap and Instagram who are copying each other’s features, WhatsApp could probably copy these useful features as well. Telegram was recently in the news when the Iranian government cracked down on dissent using Telegram to message each other during recent protests (and the government plans to block the app). Ditto with fellow democracy-squashing country Russia, which has just taken to draconian measures inbanning Telegram with world-class Luddite Putin’s attempt to control the Internet. It’s not all kumbaya and freedom fighters as this app has been used extensively by ISIS members to communicate, which has been a favorite to its member due Telegram’s secret chatrooms and self-destructing messages. It is because of this privacy, and the lack of significant crackdowns on the platform from the West that emerging groups which value privacy, such as those in the cryptocurrency space, who have made it their go-to form of messaging. But even among that group (many of whom privacy and decentralized control is part of their ethos) feel Telegram is not safe enough and have started to migrate to Signal.
Safety Takeaway: Telegram is growing in popularity (with 100 million-plus users) and could see increased usage in the business world (as it has in the tech world). While it may be secure it’s not necessarily a platform you need to be on, unless you’re buying some form of cryptocurrency or traveling to Iran. In the near future, we could continue to see Telegram as the messaging app of choice for pro-democracy resistance movements.
⚫️ Signal: You’ve got to love any app which quotes Edward Snowden giving a testimonial on its landing page. If the world’s most infamous whistleblower thinks it’s a secure product to use, then you can be sure some people are betting their lives on it. With a lot of Facebook hate going on these days (probably justifiably), and many people not trusting social networks, Signal seems like a good choice for those interested in privacy. The challenge, like any new platform, is the number of users – just because peoples’ information was compromised on Facebook does not mean that a bulk of people are going to migrate in mass to new platforms, despite what some loud people post on Twitter. But Signal does take privacy very seriously with its spartan approach (ex., no cute stickers to send to your friends).
Safety Takeaway: This platform is secure, and more people are starting to use it (particularly those whose who were active Telegram users). This is a solid platform which could see a further uptake in usage as people begin to lose trust in the big tech companies (and more incriminating news is revealed).
Notable mentions: WeChat and Confide
⚫️ WeChat: One could not mention messaging apps and leave out WeChat, the dominant messaging app owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent that has become pervasive in China and is close to reaching 1 billion users. WeChat’s features such as payments and cab hailing are much more advanced then what we use on WhatsApp. What is probably the most dynamic thing about WeChat is its users’ ability to use the app as their ID (with the blessing of the Chinese government); meaning you leave home with only a cell phone. No wallet required. This is a must for anyone who is working with China, note, however, that there are stories about messages not reaching their destination, and like Facebook on steroids, Tencent has shared information with the Chinese government about anti-government messages which have resulted in arrests by the regime.
⚫️ Confide: The messaging app was used by the Trump administration to communicate because it’s self-destructing messages which disappear after the recipients read the message. It was just a matter of time before Snap’s model of disappearing images made its way to the messaging world. Other apps such as Telegram have also started to include this feature, and there could be a time in the future where more mainstream messaging apps like Facebook Messenger use it. The killer feature with this app is the ScreenShield technology which does not allow users to take screenshots of messages, a very useful feature in today’s political environment. The deeper question is the use of this app by government officials a violation of the Sunshine Law; “a law requiring certain proceedings of government agencies to be open or available to the public”?
We’re entering a world where messaging is the most direct way to reach people internationally, as well as a period in history where big tech is still trying to convince everyone that they’re not using our data without our permission. WhatsApp will continue to be the incumbent messaging app, and while not perfect, is what we’d recommend. Use us as a resource for understanding and protecting yourself in this brave new world. You can reach us by responding to this message, messaging one of the team members, or the old-fashioned way, giving us a call.
Don Aviv, President, Interfor International