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Have the recent privacy issues with WhatsApp convinced you it’s time to find a new messaging app? If so, you’ve come to the right place. In this article we’re going to review what the heck is going on here. Then we’ll take quick looks at five secure messaging apps that actually respect your privacy.
Finally, we cover a few of the common questions that people have about WhatsApp, privacy, and alternative secure messaging apps. So let’s dive in!
Guest author Heinrich Long is a writer at Restore Privacy, a blog dedicated to inform about best online privacy practices, secure your electronic devices, unblock restricted content and defeat censorship.
Overview of WhatsApp privacy issues
WhatsApp has a couple of issues that seem to all be hitting at the same time. One issue appeared January 10, 2021, when WhatsApp group invite links and user profiles started appearing in Google searches. This could allow someone who spotted such links in a Google search to join the indexed groups.
Thousands of user profiles were also indexed by Google, which could lead to a user’s data, including phone number and profile photo, being exposed to outsiders. WhatsApp has reportedly fixed the Google indexing problem — but it may be too late if your data has already been exposed in the wild.
The other issue bedeviling the service right now is their new Terms of Service. Those terms will require users to consent to WhatsApp sharing user data with Facebook. Yes, this is the same Facebook that has been plagued with privacy scandals over the years. And if users don’t consent to this sharing by February 8, 2021, they will not be able to use the service any more.
What kind of data will WhatsApp share with Facebook? Sensitive data that many people won’t want shared. It reportedly includes your user ID, device ID, hardware model, operating system, battery level, signal strength, app version, browser info, mobile network, language, time zone, IP address, phone number, email address, contacts, advertising data, and payment information.
According to this Wired article, WhatsApp has been sharing much of this data with Facebook since 2016. But the pop ups that just started appearing, along with Facebook’s recent history of privacy issues, seem to have finally tipped the public against WhatsApp.
Resolving to get away from WhatsApp is a good first step — but then comes the challenge of what to switch to. We’ve got your back on this one. So let’s talk about our top five alternatives to WhatsApp.
Top 5 Alternatives to WhatsApp
There isn’t any one service that works as a direct replacement for Facebook’s WhatsApp. If you ignore the privacy issues, it is an excellent product, with tons of features and a multi-billion person user base.
Our 5 best WhatsApp alternatives each have their own unique characteristics that you need to consider. What they do all have in common is that they don’t collect massive amounts of user data, metadata, or personally identifiable information, and they aren’t about to share it all with Facebook.
We’ll start with the messenger app that is getting the most attention these days, with recommendations from people like Edward Snowden and Elon Musk. That messenger app is called Signal.
Signal is a free messenger that features secure, end-to-end encrypted text, voice, and video chats, voice and video calls, as well as secure file and photo transfers. It is built around the Signal Messaging Protocol, widely recognized as the most secure messaging protocol available.
More importantly for this conversation, Signal goes out of its way to gather and store as little of your data as possible. Whereas WhatsApp gathers loads of information and stores it in their own servers, this WhatsApp alternative only records:
- your phone number
- the date and time you joined the service
- the date you last logged on
Any other data Signal uses, such as your contact list, who you have been communicating with, and the groups you belong to, is encrypted and stored on your device. As a result, no one, not even Signal’s own personnel, can see any of this data without physical access to your device (or the device of someone who communicates with you).
How good is Signal? Their site features endorsements from experts like Edward Snowden, Bruce Schneier, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. And when the whole WhatsApp controversy blew up, none other than Elon Musk suggested people move to Signal.
You can get the Signal mobile app for free on Android and iOS devices. They also have a desktop version that runs on Windows, Mac OS, and Linux machines.
Sound promising? Then check out Restore Privacy's complete Signal Messenger review to learn more.
Telegram is another good option if you want to escape from the WhatsApp data disaster. It offers the similar capabilities to WhatsApp, along with a huge user base. Most of the people you want to talk to are likely already using it. Telegram is cloud-based, which lets you use it on multiple devices simultaneously.
They gather less data than WhatsApp does, and they don’t hand any of it over to Facebook. However, they do use server-side encryption for private and group chats that are stored on their servers. You’ll want to use Secret Chats for the most private communications, since encryption is not enabled by default with the Telegram app.
Threema is a mature, powerful messaging app that somehow never gained a wide audience. Unlike some of the other WhatsApp alternatives in this guide, Threema is not free. It costs $2.99, but you don’t have to go through the Google Play Store — the APK is also available for direct purchase and download.
With only a few million users worldwide, chances are that most of your contacts have never heard of Threema, much less used it. But if you are concerned with protecting your data from being used by others, it might be exactly the WhatsApp alternative you need.
You can use Threema totally anonymously. By default, you are identified on Threema by a randomly-generated ID that isn’t associated with any user-identifiable data, and Threema doesn’t log anything anyway. The service uses strong end-to-end encryption, so only the intended recipient of a message can read it.
Threema recently completed a transition to open source software, and the code is audited regularly so you can be confident that they aren’t doing anything sneaky that could compromise your anonymity.
Threema runs on Android and iOS devices, and also has a browser-based chat for desktop use. To learn more about Threema, including their special versions for business and educational settings, check out Restore Privacy's full Threema review.
Wire is a corporate collaboration suite with secure messaging, group chat capabilities, file-sharing, and more. They also offer Wire Personal, which can be a good replacement for WhatsApp. Wire Personal is open source, end-to-end encrypted software, and it is completely free to use.
The company does log some data, but not to the extent that WhatsApp does. You need to provide either an email address or a phone number to create an account. Registering with a disposable email address is a much more private way to go than using your phone number.
Like Threema, Wire Personal has a very small user base of only a few hundred thousand users. While it is free and works great now for personal use, it might not be a long-term solution given its limited adoption.
5. Wickr Me
You know a messenger app is secure when an elite military force chooses to use it for communication in a combat zone. Wickr was recommended for use by the 82nd Airborne’s Task Force Devil when they were deployed at an unidentified location in the Middle East. If the Wickr product line is good enough for them, then Wickr Me is surely a good enough WhatsApp replacement for us civilians.
Wickr Me uses anonymous accounts. With no personally identifiable information for them to log, the kind of problem we are seeing with WhatsApp’s use of metadata can’t exist.
All Wickr Me content is ephemeral. All messages and attachments self-destruct after the length of time you specify. Even if someone invents a quantum computer that can crack the encryption Wickr Me uses, there won’t be any messages sitting around on your device to crack.
WhatsApp alternatives FAQ
Here are some frequently asked questions when the subject of the conversation is alternatives to WhatsApp.
What are the dangers of using WhatsApp?
As of today, one thing that is not at risk when you use WhatsApp is the content of your messages. The service’s end-to-end encryption remains secure.
The danger is that WhatsApp collects a massive amount of other personally identifiable information about their users and will share it with Facebook, the parent company.
What happens on February 8, 2021?
That’s because the new policy requires you to agree to WhatsApp sharing all the data it has about you with Facebook. This include sensitive things like your user ID, device ID, phone number, email address, contacts, advertising data, and payment information.
Facebook will of course be using any information it gets for its own purposes, selling it to third party marketers, and probably providing it to the FBI, NSA, and any other government agency that wants to keep tabs on who you talk to using WhatsApp.
What happens if you don’t agree to these intrusive terms? You have to immediately delete your WhatsApp account.
Where is the best place to download WhatsApp alternatives?
It depends on which app you decide to use. Signal suggests you download the mobile app from Google Play or the Apple App Store. Telegram is available through those sources, too. But you can also download the APKs directly from F-Droid or TechSpot Downloads if you are an Android user.
Is Signal safer than WhatsApp?
Yes. Both products use strong end-to-end encryption to protect the content of your messages. But WhatsApp gathers a large amount of data which it is about to begin handing to Facebook. This data can help identify you with a high degree of accuracy, which means you can be tracked as you travel around the internet.
Signal gathers only your phone number. Signal is also open source and their code has been extensively reviewed by privacy experts. There is no secret recording of user data that could be used to violate your privacy or track you as you move around the internet.
If you are concerned with your online privacy, it is time to join the crowd and abandon WhatsApp. While you won’t find a competing product with the exact same characteristics as WhatsApp, there are several competitors that could meet your needs. We profiled the top five alternatives to WhatsApp here, and included links to our in-depth reviews of each.
You have until February 8, 2021 to either allow WhatsApp to share your data with Facebook, or to switch to one of these alternatives. We urge you to download one or more of these messengers and start testing it right away. You only have a few weeks to make your move.