WhatsApp and the alternatives: How trustworthy are messengers?

Jan Tissler

WhatsApp is (once again) in the crossfire of criticism these days. The wave of migration to alternative messengers was big enough to prompt 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 current wave of outrage at WhatsApp was triggered by the announcement of new terms of use at very short notice. Anyone who had not accepted these by February 5 was to be blocked. The main bone of contention: it seemed that WhatsApp now wanted to share more data about its users with Facebook and other companies.
Facebook has since contradicted this impression. It is merely a matter of allowing chats with companies in future. All private conversations are still secure. At the same time, the deadline for approval was postponed from February 5 to May 15.

What the criticism of messengers like WhatsApp is based on

It should come as no surprise that the public and users are so irritated with Facebook. After all, the company has worked hard over the years to earn its bad reputation when it comes to data protection and privacy.
In this respect, we should be sceptical when Facebook now claims that it is not interested in feeding personalized advertising with WhatsApp information. That may be true today. Whether it will still be true tomorrow remains to be seen. Especially as the terms of use seem to contradict themselves at this point, if you take a closer look.
Moreover, both can be correct: Yes, the chats themselves are still secure. But what is much more interesting is what happens to the metadata. This includes who talks to whom and how often. WhatsApp also generally collects more data than, for example, Apple's iMessage or the alternative messenger Signal.
Another stumbling block in terms of security is encryption. If it is end-to-end, it is already very good in itself. But the extent to which this also applies to the backups of your own conversations in Apple's iCloud, for example, does not seem entirely clear.
Statements from an employee in Apple's PR team also focus on the fact that the encryption on the devices is intended to protect against "hackers, thieves and criminals". However, the numerous prying eyes of various authorities 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 and Switzerland and the EU are now invalid. Not least for this reason, the less data a messenger collects and stores, the better. Because data that does not exist cannot be passed on.

Most praised WhatsApp alternative: Signal

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

  • All chats are end-to-end encrypted by default and can therefore only be read by the sender and recipient.
  • The content of the chats remains on the devices and is not stored in the cloud.
  • Profile information such as the contact list and settings can be password-protected and encrypted and saved on Signal's servers to help when changing devices.
  • According to its own information, the metadata is also encrypted in such a way that Signal itself cannot read it.
  • Signals 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 set up by Brian Acton, one of the two WhatsApp founders, among others.
  • Signal is generally regarded as very secure and offers many functions. The biggest criticism is that your own account is linked to a telephone number. Anonymous use is therefore only possible with difficulty.

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

  • Threema: Unlike Signal, Threema does not require you to disclose 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. Threema is backed by the Swiss company Threema GmbH, which also offers a messenger for companies.
  • Telegram: Here, chats are stored on the messenger's servers by default. Although they are encrypted, they can be decrypted by third parties if required. End-to-end encryption is available in "secret" chats, which you have to create yourself. The two Russian brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov are behind Telegram. The latter built up the Facebook competitor VKontakte and has apparently financed the messenger out of his own pocket to date. Advertising is to be introduced soon.
  • In an overview of WhatsApp alternatives (payment barrier), "Die Zeit" also recommends the alternatives Ginlo and Delta.chat, which have comparatively few users.
  • Apple's iMessage is worth mentioning, although it is still reserved for the manufacturer's devices.
  • Another messenger from Switzerland is still brand new on the market: Teleguard.
  • Not forgetting the "secure collaboration platform" Wire - also from Switzerland.

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

Closing words

The uproar surrounding WhatsApp is certainly justified. Facebook has shown over the years that its own business is usually more important than the interests of its users. Allegedly, the company wants to prioritize data protection in the future. But it remains to be seen whether this will actually happen.
When choosing an alternative, you should also take a closer look. Because not all competitors are automatically better in all respects.