Signal vs WhatsApp: Chat App Encryption

If you spend any amount of time on social media these days (and heaven knows I do), you’ll see people talking about encrypted chat apps.

In the days following the Capitol riots, both Twitter and Facebook cracked down hard on violent speech and anything that could be considered a conspiracy theory. The result was a weird exodus of angry users flouncing off the platforms and seeking out more…private channels of communication.

Within days, Signal and Telegram shot to the top of the download charts on both the App Store and Google Play.

WhatsApp lagged behind the others. Since 2016 it has used the exact same end-to-end encryption Signal does, and it was even founded by Brian Action, executive chairman of the Signal Foundation. But it’s also owned by Facebook, and recently changed its terms of service to include the explicit notice that it shares data with the Zuckerbergs upstairs. How much? Who knows.

But if you’re looking for privacy above all else, it doesn’t exactly make you feel secure.

Locked Down

Signal is, objectively, the most secure. Other apps are using end-to-end encryption, but Signal developed it. It’s the gold standard. And your messages are not only encrypted; you can set messages to disappear after a customizable time.

Other than your phone number, Signal collects no data on its users. And even your phone number will soon be optional, because Signal is working on a way to decouple your number from the app, by making encrypted contact servers.

You might wonder why on earth this is necessary, but consider this: If the police demanded Signal turn over its data, there’d be literally nothing to share.

Ounces of Prevention

I’m not getting political in this piece, but clearly some post-Capitol siege users were looking for a space they could discuss potentially illegal activities without fear of discovery. And on the other side of the aisle, people are using apps to track protests and share warnings with one another.

You’re probably…not doing that.

But the argument can easily be made that whether you’re planning a protest, sharing inauguration memes, or just chewing the fat with your friends, you deserve to do that in private.

Why should Facebook or Twitter or the government or anyone be able to monitor your conversations?

Yeah ok, that’s a little political. The thing is, there are good arguments for and against, and that’s all I’ll say about that.

Except There’s This, Too

Encrypted apps were desirable long before that guy tried to steal the portrait of Tip O’Neill. For years, the initialism powers that be — the NSA, FBI, and CIA — have been looking for new ways to learn more about you.

In 2015 James Clapper wanted to fight cyberattacks from foreign powers by getting access to Americans’ private accounts. And that hasn’t changed. Worse, we’re not privy to details on the level of access into our private lives they already have.

But it seems very likely they know far more than we think they do, or want them to. So it starts to make more and more sense why you’d want to keep the private, private.

Even if you have nothing to hide. Sometimes it really is just the principle of the thing.

In China, giant ecommerce apps like Alibaba and Tencent are required to aid the Chinese government in hunting down criminal suspects and silencing political dissent. We’re not there.

But we could be, in theory.

Decentralization and security will become more popular as the line between private and corporate blur even further.

Technology has allowed us to open ourselves to the world. And now it’s time for technology to close it down again.

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