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WhatsApp vs Signal vs Telegram: Here’s how they fare against each other amidst concerns of privacy after WhatsApp’s latest policy update

WhatsApp has claimed that the latest update is only applicable for business chats on the platform. and it does not change WhatsApp’s data-sharing practices with Facebook

Earlier this week, Whatsapp forced its users to agree to the new privacy rules or else lose access to the app. An in-app notification popped up as soon as the app was opened and it informed users on the changes made in the new privacy policy.

According to the popular messaging app, the company’s new terms of service and privacy policy will come into effect on 8 February 2021. To continue using the app, WhatsApp users will have to accept the terms and conditions. If the users do not accept the new terms of service, they will lose access to the app. In other words, updated policy no longer indicates that users would be able to choose whether they want their data to be shared with Facebook or not.

In its notification, the Facebook-owned messaging app conveyed that as a part of the policy update, it will share user data with other Facebook companies. It elaborated users on how Whatsapp handles the data, how it would partner with Facebook to facilitate integration across Facebook Company Products and how businesses can use Facebook hosted services to store and manage.

Detailed overview of privacy policy changes made by Whatsapp

Meanwhile, Whatsapp has updated its website with a detailed overview of what the changes in the policy of the app meant for the users.

“Our Services have optional features which, if used by you, require us to collect additional information to provide such features. You will be notified of such a collection, as appropriate. If you choose not to provide the information needed to use a feature, you will be unable to use the feature. For example, you cannot share your location with your contacts if you do not permit us to collect your location data from your device. Permissions can be managed through your Settings menu on both Android and iOS devices,” Whatsapp wrote.

The Facebook-owned messaging service also expanded on how much of the data is collected automatically by the app. “We collect information about your activity on our Services, like service-related, diagnostic, and performance information. This includes information about your activity (including how you use our Services, your Services settings, how you interact with others using our Services (including when you interact with a business), and the time, frequency, and duration of your activities and interactions), log files, and diagnostic, crash, website, and performance logs and reports,” WhatsApp said.

“This also includes information about when you registered to use our Services; the features you use like our messaging, calling, Status, groups (including group name, group picture, group description), payments or business features; profile photo, “about” information; whether you are online when you last used our Services (your “last seen”); and when you last updated your “about” information,” WhatsApp added.

Whatsapp is the largest messaging service in the world with over 2 billion monthly active users. However, an insidious in-app notification, forcing users to accept the new privacy policy has set off alarm bells ringing for the privacy-conscious users, who are now making a beeline to dump the app and shifting to more secure and reliable alternatives. Messaging apps Signal and Telegram are the two frontrunners that have caught the fancy of these set of disenchanted Whatsapp users who are looking to migrate to other platforms amidst the growing privacy concerns.

Let’s take a look at how the two alternative apps, Signal and Telegram, fare in terms of Security and Features as against Whatsapp:-

Signal

Signal is an open-source messaging app that is privacy focused and is widely used by journalists, security experts, and academics across the globe. It instantly shot to fame after Tesla CEO Elon Musk urged his followers on Twitter to use the app in the wake of the notorious privacy policy changes made by Whatsapp.

The laconic endorsement made by the world’s richest man was enough to spur a large number of users to download and sign-up for Signal, forcing its servers to crash temporarily. The messaging app took to Twitter to acknowledge that it was getting many new requests for new join-ins and this unexpected surge has led to delays in verification codes from network providers. The glitch was soon fixed, and the users were able to register without any hiccups thereafter.

On January 9, the official Twitter account of Signal tweeted that it is listed as the top free app on Apple’s App Store charts in India, Austria, France, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, and Switzerland.

Signal places a high premium on the user’s privacy. It uses the open-source Signal Protocol to implement end-to-end encryption which covers all forms of communication on Signal. The Signal Protocol also underpins Whatsapp’s end-to-end encryption.

Though Whatsapp encrypts calls and messages, Signal goes a step further and encrypts metadata too. In addition to this, Signal uses Sealed Sender to communicate between the sender and the recipient. Sealed Sender is a protocol developed by Signal, through which no one will be able to determine, not even Signal, who is messaging to whom.

There is an array of other privacy features on Signal too such as locking the app with passcode or biometrics. Then there is a two-factor authentication option to block screenshots within the app and the recent screen. Similarly, Signal recently also added a new feature of blurring faces automatically before sending images to make the messaging experience even more private and secure.

Privacy tab on Signal messaging app

Signal also allows users to hide their IP address. One can even enable incognito keyboard while typing on Signal, delete old messages, apply dark mode and blur faces and private information from its in-app photo editor.

In terms of features, Signal provides secure messaging, voice, and video calls. Users can also have a group chat and Signal had recently added group calling feature as well, something which was missing for a long time. Furthermore, the app also packs features such as disappearing messages which was recently added in Whatsapp. However, unlike Whatsapp, Signal does not offer broadcast messaging services.

Although Signal might fall short on the features, it more than makes up with an impressive set of privacy features. The app has not only been endorsed by Tesla CEO Elon Musk but also recommended by whistleblower Edward Snowden. When asked by a Twitter user why should one trust Signal, Snowden responded: “Here’s a reason: I use it every day and I’m not dead yet.”

Signal app is administered by Signal Foundation, a non-profit organisation. The Foundation was set up by Moxie Marlinspike, creator of the Signal app, and Brian Acton, co-founder of WhatsApp. Acton had left WhatsApp over dispute with Facebook over monetization of WhatsApp, and had alleged that Facebook executives had forced him to mislead European Union authorities regarding Facebook’s intention to merge Facebook and WhatsApp user data.

Telegram

Besides Signal, another messaging app that is being viewed by a lot of people as a credible Whatsapp alternative is Telegram. In terms of security, Telegram also offers a bunch of privacy and security features but it is not as secure as Whatsapp and Signal. For instance, Telegram offers end-to-end encryption of communication but only when the user is using its secret chat feature.

E2E on Telegram is only possible by enabling the secret chat feature

The E2E encryption on Telegram is not enabled by default. This basically means that when a user is using a secret chat feature, the messages are encrypted on his/her mobile phone and then decrypted on Telegram’s server. Again, the messages are encrypted on the server and sent to the recipient for final decryption. As evident, Telegram has encryption keys on the server-side and can, in theory, access regular chats of users.

However, Telegram claims that it stores messages and decryption keys in such a manner that one would require court orders from multiple legal systems around the world to access user’s data. The company also claims that it has so far shared 0 bytes of data with third-parties and sovereign governments.

Telegram uses its home-made encryption protocol MTProto for encrypting messages sent on secret chats. However, it is a close-sourced protocol and therefore security researchers can’t vouch for the validity of the claim made by Telegram. However, they believe that it would have been much better to use an open-source protocol such as the Signal protocol that using a proprietary closed-source encryption protocol as is used in Telegram. In other terms, privacy features on Telegram are not as robust as on Whatsapp and Signal.

While Whatsapp is ideal in terms of the number of features it offers, Telegram is overloaded with a ton of features. Identical to Whatsapp, users get run-of-the-mill features such chat, group chat and channels. However, while the group limit in Whatsapp is 256, Telegram offers support for groups with more than 200,000 members.

Telegram also packs group-specific features such as bots, quizzes, hashtags and many more which considerably enhances users’ group experience. Another unique feature that Telegram offers is the self-destructing messaging feature which could come in handy for users who do not want to keep their messages for eternity on someone else’s cellphone. The app also provides support for features such as editing messages, message scheduling, sharing uncompressed media, assorted themes, and many more. Also, the size limit for sharing files on Telegram is a whopping 1.5 GB.

WhatsApp issues clarification, says changes impact business chats only

After the backlash against WhatsApp on social media, the company issued a clarification today. The company says the latest change is only applicable for business chats on the platform. The company claimed that the update does not change WhatsApp’s data-sharing practices with Facebook, and it does not impact how people communicate privately. In a statement, the company said:

As we announced in October, WhatsApp wants to make it easier for people to both make a purchase and get help from a business directly on WhatsApp. While most people use WhatsApp to chat with friends and family, increasingly people are reaching out to businesses as well. To further increase transparency, we updated the privacy policy to describe that going forward businesses can choose to receive secure hosting services from our parent company Facebook to help manage their communications with their customers on WhatsApp. Though of course, it remains up to the user whether or not they want to message with a business on WhatsApp.

The update does not change WhatsApp’s data sharing practices with Facebook and does not impact how people communicate privately with friends or family wherever they are in the world. WhatsApp remains deeply committed to protecting people’s privacy. We are communicating directly with users through WhatsApp about these changes so they have time to review the new policy over the course of the next month.

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