In the summer of 2016, WhatsApp turned on end-to-end encryption for billions of people around the world. As standard, everyone that uses the Facebook-owned messaging platform is protected against people snooping on the messages, photos and videos they send. And yes, that even means Facebook doesn’t know a whole lot about what you’re doing.
End-to-end encryption works by scrambling the messages people send – through various cryptographic methods – so that only the sender and the recipient can see what is being sent. It’s one of the most secure ways to chat online.
Since WhatsApp turned end-to-end encryption on for everyone the technology has started to become the default way people communicate. Apple’s iMessage and Signal are both end-to-end encrypted by default while Telegram, Google’s Android Messages, Zoom, Microsoft Teams and more all have modes where messages can be encrypted.
WhatsApp is the world’s largest end-to-end encrypted platform. But change is coming. From May 15, 2021, WhatsApp is asking people to agree to new terms and conditions. These changes don’t impact end-to-end encryption but introduce new ways people can interact with businesses. Since WhatsApp announced the changes at the start of 2021 they’ve been wrongly interpreted as allowing Facebook to get more of your data. But if people don’t agree they will have their account suspended. As a result, millions of people have ditched WhatsApp and are looking for alternatives.
And there are bigger changes on the horizon. Facebook is working to put its Messenger app and Instagram direct messages both on the same end-to-end encrypted infrastructure as WhatsApp. This move, which is likely to happen in 2022, will protect trillions of messages people send but also make getting away from Facebook’s vast data-tracking system even harder.
Fortunately, there are a handful of alternative messaging apps out there if you value your privacy more than convenience. Here’s our pick of the best.
Signal can do pretty much everything that WhatsApp can. It uses your phone’s data connection to send end-to-end encrypted messages – or voice notes, images or videos – to individuals and groups. As with WhatsApp, Signal also lets you make one-to-one voice and video calls.
The app’s end-to-end encryption means any message sent is turned into indecipherable code until it reaches the receiver’s phone – removing the chance for a third-party to intercept it on the way. The encrypted messenger has also been frequently favoured by the NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
Because Signal’s underlying code is open-source, it has been scrutinised by security and privacy experts. It has largely become the web’s main encryption standard and its tech is also used by Facebook and Google within their messaging apps.
In February 2018, WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton – who left Facebook in September 2017 – announced Signal would be expanded to have its own Foundation, a nonprofit with the aim of making private communication accessible to everyone.
Signal is our recommended encrypted messenger of choice, but it you’re after a few more options, keep reading. iOS | Android
Telegram is one of the most popular messaging apps outside of China – and since it was launched in August 2013 has grown to have more than 500 million people using it. Created by entrepreneur Pavel Durov, Telegram has been popular in countries such as Iran and Russia where governments have attempted to ban it several times. However, WhatsApp’s policy changes saw Telegram benefit at the start of 2021 with Durov saying 25 million new people signed up for it in just 72 hours.
Telegram is an encrypted messaging app but it is not end-to-end encrypted by default – this has led to security experts warning against using it if you want the most private experience possible. Telegram isn’t end-to-end encrypted as it works differently than some other messaging apps. There are a few different options including its “one-to-many” broadcast channels – these can be public or private and involve administrators sending out messages to everyone who subscribes to the channel. There are also groups, which can have a maximum of 200,000 members and individual chats. End-to-end encryption can be turned on for one-to-one secret chats. iOS | Android
Wire is also another of Snowden’s recommendations. The Switzerland-based messaging service, like all the apps listed here, is free to use but also has premium paid tiers. This is because Wire also bills itself as a “collaboration suite” that allows for conference calls and file sharing to take place.