It’s not just international spies who want to be able to share information privately. Every one of us wants to know that our private conversations aren’t being read by hackers, government surveillance authorities, or just curious acquaintances. Encrypted messaging apps can be a balm for this disconcerting worry.
End-to-end encryption should be a basic requirement for every encrypted messaging app. It basically means that only you and the person you’re messaging can read your messages; to anyone else it will just appear as garbled nonsense. Still, there are levels of reliability when it comes to encryption. The most secure messaging apps use high level encryption along with smart ways for each participant in the conversation to identify each other without the app holding identifying data.
Nobody wants their private messages to be read by others. But is that really something we should be worried about? It depends who you ask.
There are those who trust today’s technology unquestioningly and can’t imagine their smartphones or internet networks being compromised. On the other extreme are the super-vigilant who are constantly convinced that hacks, thefts, spying, and abuse await at every turn.
Today’s technology user should fall somewhere between these two extremes. It’s not a guarantee that you’ll be hacked or spied on, but neither is it that far-fetched. So it’s a good idea to adopt the best security practices you can manage, to the best of your ability and resources. Encrypted messaging apps are an easy and usually free way to protect yourself and your information.
Here are some questions to ask when deciding on a secure messaging app. You can decide which of these features are important to you and then choose the app that meets your needs.
Along with the level of encryption, another important question to ask is what data the messaging app itself stores. The most secure messaging apps don’t keep a copy of your messages or any identifying information about you, which includes your name and your phone number. One word of warning – if you backup your messages from any app into the cloud, they’ll no longer be protected by the app’s safeguards.
Although it sounds a little dramatic, many messaging apps have the added security of letting you set messages to disappear after a certain period of time, much like Snapchat.
Wiping a message from the app entirely is only offered by a few messaging apps, but it allows you to remove all traces that you ever used an encrypted app along with all the content that was shared through it, so that no one becomes suspicious of your reasons for using a secure messaging medium.
Here’s a breakdown of the top 10 encrypted messaging apps in 2021:
One of the most secure messaging apps out there, Signal doesn’t keep a copy of your messages or any identifying information about you, which includes your name and your phone number. Its commitment not to store any messages or metadata at all has made it a popular choice amongst privacy advocates, as do features such as one that allows each person to use a safety number in order to identify each other. Furthermore, Signal users have the option of choosing between regular and self-destructing messages so as to completely remove a message from circulation after a certain point. The makers have also opened up their source code to public scrutiny so that users can feel confident that there are no hidden bugs, backdoors, or traps.
Threema promises that it won’t store any messages or metadata. It also permits users to chat entirely anonymously without revealing their identity even to the app. It employs a unique ID key for member verification instead of phone numbers or email addresses, and offers the option to use a scannable QR code for user verification.
From the makers of an industry leading teleconferencing platform comes a messaging app that abides by the same security standards as its sibling software. Wickr Me is a fully end-to-end encrypted messaging app with self-destructing messages and a guarantee that no user data is stored. For more evidence of how seriously Wickr takes its security measures, look no further than its Bug Bounty Program, which offers a reward of up to $100,000 to users who spot and report a significant bug or security gap.
The biggest thing WhatsApp has going for it is its ubiquity. The popular app is used across the world in huge numbers, and if somebody you want to communicate with uses WhatsApp, you’ll need it as well. It’s free, easy, and reliable, but since Whatsapp was acquired by Facebook it’s not entirely trustworthy. It does, however, promise to never store messages, though it does keep metadata. A solid choice for general use, WhatsApp may not be the right fit for security-minded users or those exchanging sensitive information.
Another one of the top encrypted messaging apps that has gained a user base across the globe, Telegram allows users to share videos and documents securely as well as participating in group chats. Telegram has self-destruction features and doesn’t store any data from its Secret Chats. A highly respected and secure app, Telegram does require some user customization to get the most out of its encryption capabilities, so tech-averse users may require something a little more streamlined.
Unlike most encrypted messaging apps, Silent Phone offers the basic app for free but requires you to pay to access the best features. Pricing aside, it stacks up nicely when it comes to security and usability. Silent Phone allows users to manage the settings that determine how long it will be before their message self-destructs. Its fast option to quickly close down the app and wipe all content and all your contacts from it could be an appealing feature for those who need it. And in another example of its standing and transparency, Silent Phone opened up their source code to public scrutiny so that users can feel confident that there are no hidden bugs, backdoors, or traps.
iMessage is, of course, the free app included on iPhones, and though it’s nowhere near as secure as others on this list, its popularity and ubiquitousness demand its place on any messaging list. It’s worth noting that iMessage is only available for iPhone users, and it only
guarantees its encryption for cases in which both participants are using iPhones. It’s safe enough for general use, and its accessibility alone makes it hard to pass up, though for extremely sensitive content or individuals extra concerned about privacy, a more advanced app should be considered.
ChatSecure remains the only completely open source secure messaging app, which means that it’s constantly probed and improved by thousands of developers. That’s only the beginning of the many measures it takes to ensure its users’ messages are secured. ChatSecure assures users that it doesn’t store any messages or metadata, but it takes it one step further by offering Off the Record (OTR) protection. OTR makes it impossible to prove that you sent any message, meaning you can safely deny any claims. ChatSecure also offers a digital fingerprint which verifies the other user and is experimenting with the use of Tor via Orbot to add an extra layer of security by masking your location. Unfortunately, the app is only available through iOS, though an Android app did exist at one point and could return in the future.
Viber is a popular and well-respected messaging app with end-to-end encryption and some unique features that distinguish it from the others on this list. Notably, it presents users with a color-coded padlock icon that will indicate whether a text message exchange, voice call, or video call is encrypted (gray for encrypted, green for encrypted with a trusted contact, and red for non-encrypted) so you’ll know your security level. Viber also offers ‘hidden chats’ so that users can hide chat rooms when using a shared device.
Facebook is already notorious for mining as much user data as it possibly can. Even the encrypted Facebook Messenger still stores metadata, and it only encrypts conversations if you opt in to ‘secret conversations’ via the mobile app. Facebook also warns that it will decrypt and read messages if they are reported by another user, so it’s clearly not the best option for those extra cautious about security and privacy. Somewhat surprisingly, however, Facebook Messenger does let users decide whether a message should self-destruct and if so, how long the interval should be.
Whether you’re the next top secret whistleblower or just want to keep your curious boss or relatives out of your private chats, you deserve privacy. Encrypted messaging apps will keep you and your conversations protected. Just because you have nothing to hide, that doesn’t mean you should be exposed. Today’s interconnected world means that we all should demand a modicum of privacy, and encrypted messaging apps, which are free to download and easy to use, should be first on everyone’s list in claiming a space where their conversations are theirs, and theirs alone.