Telegram vs Signal vs WhatsApp

Categories: How To

WhatsApp is currently the largest messaging service in the world, with over 2 billion monthly active users. Following that, Telegram accounts for 400 million, and Signal for 10-20 million monthly active users.

In this article we’ll do an in-depth comparison of the security, ownership, and features for each of these three services.

1. Security

WhatsApp

On WhatsApp, individual chats are end-to-end encrypted by default, and is used for text messages, voice messages, video calls, voice calls, and photos.

This means that only you and the intended recipient can view your messages, not even WhatsApp themselves can decrypt the contents. Group chats are not encrypted and cannot be, due to the way the encryption protocol works.

To enable this encryption, WhatsApp uses the E2E protocol developed by Open Whisper Systems, which is the same company that built Signal. It’s an open source, peer-reviewed protocol, and is generally considered as one of the best options for end-to-end encryption on messaging platforms.

Even though your communications on WhatsApp are E2E encrypted, local and cloud backups are not – this means that anyone who has access to your backups can still read any of your messages.

Also, WhatsApp does not encrypt the metadata it uses to carry communications between senders and recipients – this metadata doesn’t allow anyone to read your messages, but it does allow interceptors to see who you messaged, and when.

On the front-end side, WhatsApp has a built-in app lock feature on both Android and iOS, which allows you to protect your chats with biometrics. The app also supports two-factor authentication (2FA), which makes it more difficult for someone to steal your account.

WhatsApp doesn’t currently feature self-destructing messages, and when you delete a chat on WhatsApp you do not have the option of deleting it on the recipient’s device too. WhatsApp also doesn’t block screenshots within the app.

Telegram

On Telegram, individual chats are not end-to-end encrypted by default, but messages, voice notes, voice calls, video calls, and photos in secret chats are.

Group chats are not end-to-end encrypted and cannot be, due to the way the encryption protocol works.

Both regular chats and group chats are encrypted between your device and Telegram’s servers using the E2E protocol, but then decrypted and re-encrypted on their servers before being sent to the recipient.

For what it’s worth, Telegram states that it manages its message storage for regular chats in a way that would require court orders from multiple legal systems around the world to be able to access any of your data.

When you use secret chats, Telegram uses its own proprietary encryption protocol – MTProto – to encrypt your messages. Unfortunately since this is a closed-source protocol, security researchers cannot verify it. Telegram may change to the open-source E2E protocol for secret chats in the future, but at the moment encrypted messages on WhatsApp or Signal should be considered as more secure.

On the front-end side, Telegram also has a built-in app lock feature. Additionally, Telegram disallows screenshots on secret chats, and allows for self-destructing messages. Also, when you delete a chat on Telegram you can optionally have that chat deleted on the other party’s device too.

Signal

On Signal, the open-source Signal Protocol is used to implement end-to-end encryption for individual chats, including messages, voice notes, voice calls, video calls, and photos.

Whilst WhatsApp encrypts messages and calls, Signal goes one step further and encrypts the metadata too – this means that interceptors cannot see the contents of your messages, who you were messaging, or when you messaged them.

On the front-end side, Signal has an app lock feature as well as 2FA, an option to block screenshots within the app, and the ability to create encrypted local backups. Signal recently also added a feature to blur faces automatically before sending images.

2. Features

WhatsApp

On WhatsApp you can have individual chats, send broadcast messages to multiple contacts, or have group chats with up to 256 members.

It supports voice and video calls, however with group video calls you’re restricted to 8 users at a time.

WhatsApp also offers the WhatsApp Status (or WhatsApp Stories) feature, which neither Telegram nor Signal has.

You can share various types of files on WhatsApp, but there are file size limits. For photos, videos, and audio files this limit is 16Mb, but documents can be up to 100Mb. You can also share your live location with contacts.

WhatsApp offers backup and restore functionality through cloud services like Google Drive and iCloud, for free.

Telegram

Similar to WhatsApp, you can have individual chats, group chats, channels (broadcasts). However, whereas WhatsApp limits you to 256 members per group, Telegram’s limit is 200,000 members.

Telegram also offers group-specific features such as bots, polls, quizzes, hashtags, and more.

Self-destructing messages are available, and you can edit sent messages, schedule messages, send uncompressed media, keep a record of Saved Messages, and change your app’s theme.

Telegram’s notification support is much more granular than WhatsApp, and the file size limit for sharing on Telegram is 1.5Gb.

Signal

Whilst Signal beats WhatsApp and Telegram in terms of security, it falls short on other features.

On Signal you can have end-to-end encrypted messaging, voice, and video calls, and you can create unencrypted groups, but you don’t have the option of broadcasting messages to multiple contacts.

Signal supports self-destructing messages, and one-time-viewable images, and it has a “Note to Self” feature. You can relay voice calls via the Signal servers to hide your identity, and it has a built-in option to hide your IP address.

Additionally, you can enable incognito keyboard while typing, apply dark mode, delete old messages in bulk, and blur faces in photos.

3. Ownership

WhatsApp

WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, and although in the past the company kept WhatsApp somewhat less intrusive, that’s changed with recent privacy policy changes.

The app now shares your data with the rest of Facebook’s services for better ad targeting, and advertising will likely show up on WhatsApp soon.

Throughout WhatsApp’s lifetime under Facebook, there have been several allegations around the company breaking encryption and creating backdoors for government agencies.

The app is funded via the Facebook advertising platform.

Telegram

Telegram was launched in 2013 by Nikolai Durov and his younger brother, Pavel Durov. Both are from Russia and are currently on self-imposed exile after refusing to hand over the data of Ukranian protesters to Russia’s security agencies.

Apart from that, Pavel has taken a principled position aganst censorship and government interference on many occasions, which inspires trust. Unfortunately the closed-source encryption protocol and non-encrypted default chats in the app leaves room for improvement.

Telegram is currently self-funded, but plans to release paid-for features for businesses in the future, whilst retaining their free public features.

Signal

Signal is owned by the non-profit Signal Foundation, run by Moxie Marlinspike and Brian Acton. Brian was the co-founder of WhatsApp, but left the company 3 years after Facebook acquired it.

Signal has received top scores on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Secure Messaging Scorecard, and is funded by donations and grants.

The Conclusion

Signal is obviously the most secure messaging platform, but it does lack in features and userbase.

WhatsApp is great in terms of encryption and features, but their new privacy policy should make you hesitate to use it.

Telegram may not be as secure by default as Signal or WhatsApp, but it has a large userbase and offers many more features than either of the others.

If you absolutely need the highest levels of security it’s worthwhile going with Signal and losing out on some features, otherwise using Telegram would be the best option, so long as you enable secure chats.

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