How private are your favorite messaging apps?

The privacy of messaging apps has been in the spotlight recently, and it seems like encrypting messages is not enough. If anyone who has access to your phone or PIN can see your profile, or if the app can be opened without any additional code, your data is at risk. Here, we compare WhatsApp, Telegram, BlackBerry Messenger, Snapchat, and Threema to see which is better at protecting the privacy of your instant messages.

Table of contents

1. Method 5. BBM
2. WhatsApp  6. Threema
3. Snapchat 7. Comparison table
4. Telegram 8. Conclusions

The features we analyzed

When talking about the privacy and security of messaging apps, some features tend to be ignored, even though they’re just as important as the best encryption. One of them is knowing whether or not the message has been received; a question like “has she read it?” can bother us more than the possibility of a hacker.

We considered the security and privacy features that users value the most when sending messages, and these are the parameters we finally chose for comparison:

  • Delivery icons: Does the app tell you if the message has been read or copied? This is important if you want to control the messages you send and know who’s seen what.
  • Personal information privacy: Can you hide your last connection, your picture, name, or the message? It’s better if you can control the information you share.
  • Associating your phone number and email: Can you unlink your account from your phone number and email? If you can’t, you’ll appear in contact lists without knowing it.
  • Prevent unauthorized access: For convenience, many people don’t block their phone, but that means anyone can access their messages. Can the app be locked individually?
  • Downloading multimedia files: Unsolicited files could be a risk to the safety and privacy of others (and can get you into trouble). Can the automatic downloads be disabled?
  • Self-destruction and secret chats: Does the app have a powerful encryption system and are messages self-destructing? Is it reliable?
  • Block unknown users: Can you stop people who aren’t in your phone book from contacting you? Does it have a generic filter for unknown users, in addition to your contacts?
  • Hide notifications: Can you hide message notifications completely to maintain secrecy? Can they be set to be less visible?

WhatsApp: the most popular, but the least secure

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WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app. Since it’s purchase by Facebook, we’ve seen some small improvements. In the latest version, for example, you can hide your last connection, something that was only possible before using tricks or WhatsApp Plus. You can also hide your profile photo and your status.

WhatsApp

The icons haven’t changed: when you send a message with WhatsApp, a green check means that its left your phone, while two checks means that the message was successfully received. It’s not possible to know if the message has been read, which usually leads to misunderstandings.

WhatsApp notifications

Instead of having a user account, WhatsApp uses your phone number as an ID: if someone has your number, they can add you and immediately start chatting. There are no options to stop unsolicited messages from people who are not in your phone book.

WhatsApp Lock

To lock WhatsApp you have to download unofficial extensions like WhatsApp Lock

WhatsApp is also missing a function to lock the app: if someone picks up your phone and opens WhatsApp, they’ll be able to see all your chats. The only way to fix this problem is with Lock for WhatsApp, an unofficial app for Android. In the same vein, it doesn’t have safe chats (with strong encryption).

SnapChat: privacy to “play,” but nothing else

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Snapchat, the app that at one point was almost purchased by Facebook, is very popular among young people, who use it to share photos and videos that self-destruct after a few seconds. Although Snapchat focuses on the ephemeral, it seems to be having some security issues.

SnapChat

Associating your phone number and email address is completely optional, but if you want friends to find you, that’s the best way to do it. Take into account that in Snapchat, your personal information can’t be hidden from those who have your number in their phone book. Luckily, you can block messages from unknown users.

SnapChat

Whoever sends a photo or video can see if it’s been sent correctly, if it has been read, and even if they’ve taken a screenshot of it, something unique among messaging apps. By its very nature, downloading files in Snapchat is manual and temporary.

SnapGrab

Apps like SnapGrab can retrieve photos that have been ‘deleted’ from Snapchat

In theory, no trace of the photos is left in the phone memory, but that’s not necessarily true: although Snapchat messages are ‘invisible’ after a few seconds, they can be retrieved with a fairly simple method, a major drawback that still has to be solved.

Telegram: like WhatsApp, but with secret chats

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Telegram is the anti-WhatsApp, the secure messenger that came from Russia. The app’s security is robust, and although it has been criticized by more than one expert, no one has managed to break its complex encryption code. One of its strongest points is how similar its interface is to WhatsApp’s.

Telegram

The resemblance to WhatsApp starts with the check marks, which are identical, although the double checks have a different meaning: in Telegram, two checks mean that the message has been read. Telegram and WhatsApp are also similar in how files are downloaded, which is automatic, but this feature can be disabled.

Telegram

Telegram’s secret chats, even though they’re optional, have survived the attacks of hackers worldwide. Telegram also has messages that self-destruct, and is the only app that combines both functions. All notifications can be customized and deactivated, and if you receive a message from a secret chat, the text won’t show up.

Telegram

For now, Telegram has no options to hide your connection status or personal information, although the authors say they might add this feature soon. Telegram doesn’t block unauthorized access to the app, and just like WhatsApp, you have to use your phone number as ID for your Telegram account.

BlackBerry Messenger: an alternative that looks after your privacy

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BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) is the improved version of a classic app, and it has very important features regarding the protection of its users’ privacy. It has an advanced check system, which let’s you know if the message has been successfully sent (one check), correctly delivered (a white D on blue background), and if it’s been read (a white R on a green background).

BlackBerry Messenger

BBM icons for delivered message (D) and read message (R)

A BBM account is independent from any personal data such as your phone number: each account is associated with a BlackBerry ID. The advantage of this system is that, if you want somebody to add you, you don’t have to give them your phone number or e-mail, simply your PIN code. As a result, there are no settings for filtering unknown contacts.

BlackBerry Messenger

BBM doesn’t have secret chats or messages that self-destruct. The available information indicates that BBM’s encryption is similar to WhatsApp. On the other hand, while BBM doesn’t offer a lock system to prevent others from accessing the app, you can use auxiliary apps like Lock (Android) or Chat Lock (BB).

BlackBerry Messenger

Finally, BBM doesn’t offer options to modify the file download settings, but it’s protected: the configuration by default doesn’t save the chat history, and only previews of the images are downloaded. As for notifications, you can change the settings and hide them completely.

Threema: a new standard in security

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Threema is a paid messaging app that puts safety above everything else. Among the most secure and private messaging apps, it’s the easiest to use and has the most comprehensive functions (we’re still waiting for Heml.is to be released, which promises to have a sleek design while being very secure).

Threema

In Threema you can be “invisible” (it doesn’t send any read or typing notifications)

In Threema, all chats are secret. Not only that, but the backup of the chats is encrypted and stored in a ZIP with a password. It’s completely optional to associate your email or phone number, and the ID is independent from both, although you can add them to help you find new contacts.

Threema

Threema protects all data with a master key

Threema is the only app that lets you block it with a PIN number, so it’s the only one that takes all the points in this category. It also lets you hide when you’re writing, something that the other messaging apps in this article don’t do.

Threema

You can protect access to Threema with a PIN code

The notifications settings can be changed and partly hidden, but not entirely, although you can disable the preview. On the other hand, Threema doesn’t let you selectively hide your photo or username. Finally, Threema has an option to block unknown users, which are those who aren’t in your phone book.

Comparison table

Infographic Messaging Apps

Conclusion: choose the security that suits you

Of the apps we’ve analyzed, only Threema stands out. Others have significant drawbacks when it comes to protecting the privacy of your messages. WhatsApp is the most popular, but also the least secure; Telegram has secret chats, but they’re optional; and Snapchat is something completely different.

When it comes to choosing one of them, it all depends on what’s most important to you. If you want full control of your privacy and you don’t mind having less contacts, BBM and Threema are the apps for you. If, on the other hand, you prefer a more popular option, Telegram or Snapchat are okay on a day-to-day basis, but you’ll have to face risks with little defenses.

In the end, you’ll have to ask yourself what information you are going to share on your phone and what level of security you really need. To talk with friends, Snapchat and Telegram offer a reasonable level of privacy, but for professional communications you might be interested in going up to the next level, where you’ll find Threema and BBM.

What messaging app makes you feel safest?

Text: Fabrizio Ferri-Benedetti Graphs: Abel Bueno Video: Antoni Noguera

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