Earlier this year we detailed some secure alternatives to WhatsApp, and one option was Telegram. Since then, it has seen a lot of growth — fuelled in part by Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp and receiving a further five million signups during a four-hour WhatsApp outage in February.
Telegram is becoming a serious contender for the title of best free messaging app, but what sets it apart from other apps and why are more users picking it up?
The app’s website states that it’s “taking back our right to privacy,” and the security specs show that it means business. Telegram offers two different types of security for two different types of chats. For standard chats, there’s client-server and server-client encryption, which means that your message is unencrypted on Telegram’s servers—which is fine for most day-to-day chats. The advantage of this unencrypted storage is that it makes cross-platform messaging possible (see below).
To get full end-to-end encryption, in which Telegram never receives an unencrypted version of your message, you can use what’s called a secret chat. With the end-to-end encryption, the option to confirm with your recipient that you’re using the same encryption key to increase security, and the ability to set a self-destruct timer, secret chats provide about as much security as you could ask for in messaging, though this doesn’t allow for cross-platform messages.
Security is powered by 256-bit asymmetric AES and RSA 2048 encryption, two very strong standards. It also uses a secure key exchange to make sure that your encryption keys stay secret. The best part about this security, however, is that you don’t need to take any action at all to set it up or use it. It’s built right in! No manual key generation, like with PGP; no verbally exchanging keys; and no passwords to remember (though support for account passwords is forthcoming).
Telegram is so confident in their security that they’re offering $200,000 to anyone who can crack it.
These security features figured strongly in the migration of 1.5 million South Koreans from Kakao Talk to Telegram after an announcement by the country’s president that there would be a crackdown on private messages that were deemed to be insulting to her. South Korea isn’t alone in this — Telegram has been downloaded and used in countries all around the world where people suspect that their messages could be monitored.
There are always tradeoffs between convenience and security, but the non-profit team behind Telegram aims to make them minimal. Even with all of the security Telegram provides, it manages to be very convenient. To get it up and running, you just download the app, enter your phone number, and enter the security code you receive by text. You’re now ready to start messaging.
The interface is only slightly more complicated than most built-in text messaging apps, and just about everything is self-explanatory, making it very easy to use right out of the box. It’s also available for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone, and there are desktop clients available for PC, Mac, and Linux. The ability to continue your conversations on different platforms is really useful, and now it’s not just limited to Mac and iPhone owners.
Another thing that you’ll notice with Telegram is that messages are sent very quickly, even though they’re encrypted; this is due to the MTProto protocol developed specifically for the application, which allows for lightning-fast messaging. The fact that they have distributed servers all over the world also makes for fast messaging.
There aren’t very many messaging apps out there that have an ideological view behind them, but Telegram’s is worth talking about. When the Telegram team says that it aims to take back our right to messaging privacy, they really mean it. But they don’t lock down the app and make it difficult to use in the pursuit of that goal.
While not all of the code has been released yet, the group behind the app plans on making it all open-source eventually. Up until now, only some of the most important parts have been released, like an API for people to develop their own apps and open-source clients. Developers are encouraged to use the protocol, API, and source code for the app to help make Telegram even more useful.
The app was created by two people that you may not have expected—Nikolai and Pavel Durov, the founders of Russia’s largest social network, VK. While the Durov brothers and a number of the developers of Telegram are of Russian origin, they claim no connection with Russia, and point out in their FAQ that Telegram is actually based in Berlin.
The Perfect Combination
There are a number of secure messaging apps out there (here are six options for iOS), but there are few that offer the great combination of features that Telegram does with a transparent, non-profit philosophy and no price tag. Two levels of encryption, secure key exchange, very easy setup, and super-fast messaging speeds are something that you’ll be hard-pressed to find in another messaging app.
And if you do, you can bet it won’t be free, open-source, and as open to the public as Telegram.
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