Best Encrypted Messaging Apps to Protect Your Privacy in 2021
The land of the free and home of the brave is on shaky ground. As law enforcement agencies turn to “big data surveillance” in response to the recent protests, so privacy advocates fear they may be weaponizing digital technology “to undermine basic rights”.
There are two potentially disruptive bills hovering in the wings. The “Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act of 2020” (EARN IT Act) was proposed as “a way to protect children from online predators”.
According to the Justice Department, that means doing away with end-to-encryption which, they argue, “prevents investigators from gathering evidence that would help police catch online criminals”.
The “Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act of 2020” is potentially even more damaging to digital privacy, requiring a backdoor to be placed in all devices.
The need to protect your digital privacy has never been so important, and the only surefire way to do that is with an encrypted messaging app that “is open-source, has been vetted by independent experts and does not retain metadata”.
What is an Encrypted Message?
Encryption is the process of encoding information in order to prevent anyone that isn’t the intended recipient from reading the message. The message’s text is scrambled using complex mathematical calculations.
How to Choose the Most Secure Encrypted Messaging App
The key features to look for in the best encrypted messaging apps are:
End-to-end encryption means that the data within the message is encrypted at source and remains encrypted until it reaches its destination. In transit, anyone trying to read that message will see nothing more than scrambled nonsense.
End-to-end encryption has its limitations, however, and doesn’t keep messages from being screenshotted, saved to the cloud, stored on devices, or forwarded to other parties.
Furthermore, just because a chat app uses end-to-end encryption, it could still be collecting some data, like who is contacting who, on which device, and when.
As soon as data is retained, it can be shared, either with law enforcement agencies or other interested third parties. Although this kind of metadata won’t reveal the content of the messages, it can give insights into the “identities and locations of persons, telephone numbers or accounts”.
User Anonymity Protection
The best encrypted messaging apps keep your identity under wraps by using names instead of phone numbers to identify their users. This improves anonymity and reduces the possibility of the company handing over identities.
Open-source encrypted messaging apps are more secure than proprietary services because anyone can look at the code, double-check the security, and fix any vulnerabilities.
Encrypted messaging apps that have been independently audited are similarly more transparent, having allowed a third party to evaluate the security of every aspect of its service.
Additional tools like self-destructing messages and identity-verifying safety numbers can both boost your digital privacy even further and make you feel like an agent in Mission: Impossible.
Things to Remember When Choosing the Best Encrypted Messaging App
1. Move Away from Consumer Messaging Apps
As we have already established, it is very important to move away from consumer-grade messaging apps, especially if you run a business. While many companies allow their employees to use their own messaging apps, around 60% of employees use their own personal smartphones for business purposes regularly. The problem with this is that many of these messaging apps do not have end-to-end encryption at all.
2. Choose an App with End-to-End Data Encryption
Although there are numerous encryption possibilities out there, not every form of encryption is equally secure. Traditional encryption utilizes password keys that are stored by the app’s service provider. This is especially insecure as hackers are easily able to break into a service provider’s server and decipher the keys. The same goes for government agencies with a search warrant.
Alternatively, end-to-end encryption will encrypt each message when it is sent and does not decrypt it until it has been delivered to the recipient. These keys are stored only on the sending and receiving devices, rather than on a central server so that only the recipient is able to receive and decode the message.
3. Shred Those Messages
On top of encrypting your messages, you should also think about a solution that will automatically delete messages. Should your provider store the messages on their server, it is a possibility that these messages can be compromised by intruders.
Think about how your messages are deleted. Although traditional deletion simply removes each message, the underlying pointers to each message still remain, rendering them recoverable. The most secure way to delete your messages is to shred the message data so that it is unable to be found or even reassembled.
4. Find out What Metadata it Stores
Some services will go as far as logging the location of your phone. This is valuable information to advertisers and any other people attempting to monitor your movements.
5. Avoid Desktop Apps
One of the best elements of encrypted messaging apps is that they are available on a number of platforms, devices as well as operating systems. There are also some that have branched out, offering desktop versions to make for faster response times. However, over the past few years, there have been many vulnerabilities found in the desktop software. Always remember to update your apps and if it requires you to restart your PC, you should do so straight away.
6. Set an Expiration Date
As with shredding your messages, users should remember that encryption isn’t magic, and will not save you should your phone be compromised or stolen. This can and usually results in your data being accessed by third parties. To avoid this from happening, you should set an expiry timer on your conversations in order to ensure that any older messages are deleted.
The Best Encrypted Messaging Apps
#1 Signal – a free, safe, open-source encrypted messaging app that doesn’t store metadata
Signal is one of the best encrypted messaging apps around, and one of the few to employ end-to-end encryption by default. It’s compatible with Android, iOS, Linux, Mac, and Windows and has the support of privacy advocates Edward Snowden and Bruce Schneier.
- End-To-End Encryption Powered By Signal’s Open-Source Protocol
- Unique Safety Number For Each Conversation
- Zero Ads/Affiliate Marketing/Tracking Guarantee
- Totally Free To Use
Signal doesn’t even hold the keys to decrypt your messages so it couldn’t access them even if it wanted to.
Signal’s last independent audit was back in 2016 and it got glowing reviews. An international team of researchers found no major design flaws and confirmed that “the Signal protocol is a secure multi-stage key exchange protocol”.
Not only is it the best encrypted messaging app, but Signal is also free and simple to use. It looks a lot like Facebook Messenger and has “the same functionality [but] without the risks”.
Signal also automatically obscures faces when photos are taken within the app, blocks screenshots, and has tools to prevent key-logging and others that enable users to send disappearing messages.
It’s slick and secure and undoubtedly the best encrypted messaging app all-round.
#2 Wickr – a secure, open-source, and reliable encrypted messaging service
Wickr is a secure end-to-end encrypted messaging app that was developed in 2012. It uses zero-trust technology to ”keep customer information invisible from external and internal threats”.
It’s fully scalable, with its free app capable of providing secure video and voice calls as well as encrypted messaging services for up to 30 users. Its secure enterprise solution is designed for larger teams and offers “multiple deployment options, fine grain controls, [and] policy and compliance solutions”.
- Never Stores Metadata
- Multifactor Authentication
- Zero Trust Platform Design
- Ephemeral Messaging
Wickr’s provides regular transparency reports which give “details of the past six months of our receipt and responses to user information requests or legal processes”.
Although Wickr will cooperate with requests for information from law enforcement agencies, they will only do so “when properly served with legal process” and can only “provide non-content information” which includes dates of creation, dates of use, total number of sent and received messages, and device type.
Wickr’s user interface isn’t quite as familiar or friendly as Signal’s but its security is equally robust, making it a great choice for mobile devices and the best encrypted messaging app for Android.
Cost: Free | Premium Service: $5.00
#3 Telegram – Fast and secure with 2FA
Don’t be fooled by the name – Telegram is far from the hand-delivered messaging service of the early 1900s. This sophisticated encrypted messaging app is compatible with all major operating systems and can provide security for group chats with up to 200,000 users.
With 400 million users, it’s one of the world’s most popular encrypted messaging apps so it’s clearly got something to offer. Telegram boasts several strong points, including:
- High-speed messaging
- Open source code
- Two-factor authentication
- Self-destructing messages
While other encrypted messaging apps block screenshots on all apps, Telegram says “there is no bulletproof way of detecting screenshots on certain systems (most notably, some Android and Windows Phone devices)”.
Telegram is also guilty of gathering metadata – something that our top two encrypted messaging apps refrain from doing, but that is a common practice among many. It “may”, for example, “collect metadata such as your IP address, devices and Telegram apps you’ve used, history of username changes, etc”.
Telegram doesn’t encrypt messages by default either, only if the user creates a “secret message”. It also has yet to open itself up to an independent security audit.
Despite those shortcomings, however, Telegram remains one of the best encrypted messaging apps for iOS and a privacy-conscious choice for almost any device.
The Importance of Encrypted Messaging App Safety
Having end-to-end encryption is only one part of a holistic, secure messaging app. If you’re using Telegram, for instance, you’ll be identifiable by your cell phone number, making it very easy to track you down and unearth other potentially sensitive data.
A more secure option would be to go with a messaging app that allocates random usernames, thereby keeping your phone number private.
Many encrypted messaging apps store information in the cloud. Some, like Signal, encrypt this data, others, namely WhatsApp, do not. It’s therefore important not to just automatically back up to the nearest cloud, but to consider the safety of your data before doing so.
An encrypted messaging app that collects metadata is even more dangerous. Although WhatsApp can’t read your messages or share any information contained in them, it can hand over some pretty revealing metadata.
The best way to guard against this intrusive data collection is to use an encrypted messaging app that doesn’t collect or store anything – like Signal. It’s just introduced a new feature that removes the sender ID from the metadata, making it even more secure.
Alternatively, you could change your behavior and improve your encrypted messaging app safety that way instead.
Desktop apps are often less stable than mobile apps, for instance, so stick to your cell phone for messaging. One of the greatest threats to your encrypted messaging app data is the theft of your device. You can limit the potential damage, however, by setting your messages to expire.
As always, keeping your encrypted messaging app up-to-date is key to reliable security
There may come a time when law enforcement agencies and government representatives can access your encrypted data through a back door but, for now, your secrets will stay safe with the best encrypted messaging apps.
While most of us are content to risk our privacy on convenient messaging apps like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, journalists, activists, and protest organizers will be grateful for the extra security provided by the best encrypted messaging app.
If you’re not prepared to do that, you can boost your digital privacy by either leaving your phone at home or just turning off your location. It’s also worth remembering that, some encrypted messaging apps, like WhatsApp, will try to backup your messages to cloud storage, “but the media and messages that are included in these backups are not protected by end-to-end encryption”.
There are no backdoors into the best encrypted messaging apps as yet so embrace this opportunity to protect your digital privacy otherwise you might regret not doing it when you had the chance.