Facebook bought WhatsApp. Now that we’re over the shock of that news, are you worried about your data privacy? If you are, these four WhatsApp alternatives can help ease your mind.
Facebook isn’t exactly known for its information privacy successes — in fact, its security gaffs have been some of the biggest tech news over the past few years, and its arcane security settings are infamous. We had to write a guide to help you figure them out.
Fortunately, if you no longer feel comfortable sending data through WhatsApp, you have some secure alternatives.
A self-destructing message app, Wickr aims to transform control of mobile messaging from receiver-based to sender-based. This means that you get to decide how long your message sticks around — before you send it, you can choose a self-destruct time ranging from a few seconds to more than five days. Once the timer runs out, your message will be erased from the recipient’s phone.
The user interface is quite simple — when you open a new message, you just tap the lock icon to open the message and start the self-destruct timer. Each message has a live countdown so you know how long you have until it disappears. Your messages can contain text, images, video, audio, or files. Wickr includes convenient integration with Box, Dropbox, and Google Drive, so you can send files directly from your cloud storage.
Wickr searches your contacts for people you know that also use the app and automatically adds them to your contacts list. However, you can open a Wickr account without a phone number or e-mail address, and one of your contacts hasn’t added this information, you’ll have to add them by their username.
The app offers 4,096-bit RSA encryption, an extremely secure protocol; the app actually exceeds the NSA Suite B Compliancy guidelines, which means that its encryption actually complies with needs for top-secret communication! That’s some serious encryption. It also deletes all all meta-data from your messages, like date, time, location, and device information.
Even with this level of security, messages are encrypted and sent quickly—in my testing, it only took a few seconds to encrypt a text message with a 2MB photo, and it was delivered just as fast.
If you want to send text, images, and video, but don’t care about audio or documents, Threema is a great choice. One of the cool features of the app is that you can send your location — tap on the “attach” button and you’ll send a geographic marker to your recipient. Once they receive it, they can just tap on it to get your location on a map. This is great when you’re trying to meet up with someone or describe where you are.
Threema isn’t free, but at $1.99 it’s still very affordable, and there’s no subscription fee. According to the Threema website, they have no plans to introduce ads or start charging for use, so you don’t have to worry about the app changing once you buy it.
Although it doesn’t have quite the polish of Wickr, the user interface is still quite nice. It’s simple and clean, and looks a lot like any other text-messaging app. It also provides clear read receipts, so you know if your message has been read.
Threema provides true end-to-end encryption; your message is encrypted right on your device, and only the receiver’s device can decrypt it — the decryption key can’t be accessed by the company’s servers. Threema uses Elliptical Curve Cryptography, which is equivalent to 2048-bit RSA encryption. For further security, you don’t have to link your phone number, e-mail address or anything else to the app. You can also add a PIN lock to the app — even if someone gets into your phone, they’ll still have to get past that to get to your messages.
Another cool feature of Threema is that it provides you with information on how sure you can be that the person who sent you a message is really that person. If you add a contact by entering their username, that contact will have a red verification level. If Threema syncs with your contacts and pulls a username from its servers using SMS or e-mail validation, that contact will get an orange verification. To get to the green verification level, you’ll have to exchange keys with them by scanning the QR code on their device.
Messaging on Threema is quite fast; simple text messages are sent in a matter of seconds. During testing, it took about 30 seconds to upload, encrypt, and send a 3.9-MB photo from Dropbox.
Telegram offers support for text, photos, videos, and documents, though it lacks the ability to share audio. You can set a timer for your message to self-destruct, erasing it from the receiving device, but this is optional, which is a nice feature. Two big advantages of Telegram are its open-source and entirely cloud-based nature, which means developers have been able to create desktop clients for the service. Even if your phone isn’t working, you can still access all of your data from your computer.
Like Threema, Telegram just looks like a text-messaging client with read receipts, though it’s a bit more stylish than Threema. You have the option of changing the message background to inject some variety into your messaging, as well.
Because the group behind Telegram is a non-profit organization, the app costs nothing and is ad-free. Their website says that they’re “building a messenger for the people,” and that if the group runs out of money, they’ll add a link to the app for donations or create some non-essential paid options.
The level of encryption used in Telegram is hard to determine. Telegram.org says that messages are “heavily encrypted,” but doesn’t give details on what that means. The method of encryption, however, was created specifically for this project, and is open-source. If you want to read more about the protocol, check out this page on MTProto. Telegram offers the ability to start “secret chats,” which use full end-to-end encryption, aren’t stored on the Telegram servers, and self-destruct after a set time for sending extra-secure data.
This encryption doesn’t slow down the sending of messages, though—when testing the app, messages that I sent were transmitted almost instantly, making it a great IM-like client. Uploading and transmitting a 1.5-MB document took a big longer: around two minutes.
Currently, surespot supports text, image, and audio messages, but the development team is working on adding support for encrypted file transfer, video messages as well and group chat as well. Audio messages require paying $1.99 to unlock the voice feature. surespot gives you the option of deleting messages that you’ve sent, which will remove them from the receiving device, and doesn’t require setting a self-destruct timer.
You can add other users by searching for their usernames or scanning the QR code on their device; accounts aren’t linked to phone numbers or e-mail addresses, which is great for privacy, but not so great for finding contacts. There’s no option to sync the app with your contacts, meaning you’ll have to exchange usernames with your friends.
The user interface is bare-bones and there’s not a whole lot to the app, which makes it very easy to use but means it lacks the polish of other apps in this list. I also found the interface to be somewhat unresponsive at times while it was loading, though generally it worked well. Like Telegram, surespot is open-source, so you can expect some user-generated innovation in the future.
surespot boasts 256-bit AES-GCM encryption with keys that are generated on your device, meaning that only you and your recipient can decrypt your messages. Even with this level of encryption, messaging is very fast and there’s no considerable lag between sending and receiving text messages.
Which is best for you?
All four of these apps are great options for replacing WhatsApp if you’re worried about information privacy. The organizations behind them are committed to security, they offer high-grade encryption, and you maintain full control over who sees your information.
Wickr stands out to me as the highlight of this group. In addition to providing NSA top-secret-grade encryption, it also takes several steps to prevent people from looking over your recipient’s shoulder and snooping on your messages. It removes the meta-data from your messages, transmits very quickly, and syncs with your contacts list.
The only downside of Wickr is addressed in Telegram: the inability to send messages without self-destruct timers. By allowing you to choose whether or not to set a timer, you can treat messages accordingly based on how much security you want. Though Telegram is a bit slower on the encryption side, its message transmission is still fast. If you’re sending information that really can’t fall into the wrong hands, and you’re concerned about identity verification, Threema has your back.
What do you think? Does Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp make you nervous about data privacy? Will you be switching to another messaging app?
Photo credit: she spy by Kangrex via Flickr