WhatsApp and the alternatives: how trustworthy are messengers?

23-01-2021

Author: Jan Tissler

WhatsApp has (again) been in the crossfire of criticism these past few days. The wave of migration to alternative messengers was big enough to provoke a reaction from the Facebook group. At the same time, a closer look reveals that WhatsApp alternatives also have their problems, which you should be aware of before switching.

The trigger for the recent cry of outrage about WhatsApp is the relatively short-notice announcement regarding the new terms of use. Anyone who failed to accept them by February 5th would have been banned. The main stumbling block: It seemed as if WhatsApp wanted to share more user data with Facebook and other companies.
Facebook has since negated this interpretation, stating that the new terms only apply to chats with companies in the future. All private conversations are still safe. The deadline for approval was also extended from February 5th to May 15th.

Why all the criticism of messengers such as WhatsApp

The fact that the public and users are so irritated on Facebook should come as no surprise. The company has worked hard over the years to build a bad reputation for its data protection and privacy.
In this respect, one is excused for being skeptical when Facebook now claims that the changes are not about feeding personalized advertising based on WhatsApp data. This may be true today, but it remains to be seen whether it still holds true tomorrow. Especially since the terms of use seem to contradict themselves here if you take a closer look.
What's more, both interpretations can be applied: Yes, the chats themselves are still secure. But what is much more interesting is what happens to the metadata. This concerns who speaks to whom and how often. WhatsApp also generally collects more data than Apple's iMessage or the alternative messenger Signal, for example.
Another pitfall when it comes to security is encryption. If it occurs end-to-end, it is very effective in itself. But to what extent this also applies to backups of your own conversations, for example in Apple's iCloud, is somewhat unclear.
Statements by an employee in Apple's PR team also focus on the fact that encryption on devices should protect against “hackers, thieves and criminals”. The numerous curious eyes of various authorities, however, are not mentioned. As is well known, this is primarily a problem with US-based providers, which is why the "Privacy Shield" agreements between the USA, Switzerland and the EU are now invalid. Hence the following now applies: The less data a messenger collects and stores at all, the better. Because data that does not exist cannot be passed on.

Most acclaimed WhatsApp alternative: Signal

A frequently recommended WhatsApp alternative is Signal. Its fans include Tesla and SpaceX maker Elon Musk and, more importantly, whistleblower Edward Snowden. But how well does the messenger do in terms of security and data protection?

  • All chats are end-to-end encrypted as standard and can therefore only be read by the sender and recipient.
  • The contents of the chats remain on the devices and are not saved in the cloud.
  • Profile information such as contact lists and settings can be password-protected and encrypted on Signal's servers to help with a device change.
  • According to its own information, the metadata is also encrypted in such a way that Signal cannot read it.
  • Signal's source code for apps and servers is disclosed. Experts can therefore check what is happening "behind the scenes".
  • The messenger is now financed by the Signal Technology Foundation. It was brought into being by Brian Acton, one of the two WhatsApp founders.
  • Signal is generally considered to be very secure and offers many functions. Its biggest point of criticism: Each account is linked to a phone number, making anonymity possible, but not without its difficulties.

More WhatsApp alternatives: Threema, Telegram and more ...

  • Threema: Unlike Signal, with Threema you don't have to provide your phone number. The chats are always end-to-end encrypted and remain on the devices. The metadata does not end up in the cloud either. Behind Threema is the Swiss Threema GmbH, which also offers a messenger for companies.
  • Telegram: Here the chats are saved by default on the messenger's servers. They are encrypted, but can be decrypted by third parties if necessary. There is end-to-end encryption in “secret” chats that you have to create yourself. Behind Telegram are the two Russian brothers Nikolai and Pawel Durow. The latter built up the Facebook competitor VKontakte and has apparently financed the messenger out of his own pocket. Advertising is to be introduced soon.
  • In an overview of WhatsApp alternatives (payment barrier), “Die Zeit” recommends the alternatives Ginlo and Delta.Chat, which, however, have comparatively few users.
  • Apple's iMessage is worth mentioning, but is still reserved for the manufacturer's devices.
  • Another messenger from Switzerland is still brand new on the market: Teleguard.
  • Not to mention the “secure collaboration platform” Wire – also from Switzerland.

The list could go on. The Secure Messaging Apps Comparison page provides a good overview.

Conclusion

The excitement about WhatsApp is certainly justified. Facebook has shown over the years that its own business is usually more important than the interests of the user community. They allegedly want to prioritize data protection in the future But whether or not they actually do, remains to be seen.
When choosing an alternative, one should also take a closer look. Because not all competitors are necessarily better in all respects.

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