- Extremely American
WhatsApp is Compromised: A guideline for your migration to far more trusted messaging apps
Updated: Apr 12, 2021
April 8, 2021: If you felt safe using WhatsApp in the past, think again. With technology giant Facebook’s plans to fully integrate WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger comes an entirely new level of opportunity for Facebook to intercept and abuse the data of billions of users unlike ever before. The merger and integration of these technology giants is intended to create ‘the best messaging experiences’ for the billions of users around the world who currently (and unfortunately) use and rely on Facebook-owned apps. Bear in mind, all the features of the Facebook ecosystem come with all this tech giant’s “baggage” and unethical business practices – dirty baggage and business practices that have now been 'inherited' by WhatsApp users.
News that WhatsApp has been ‘sharing’ large amounts of highly personal data with Facebook since 2016 has led a large number of unhappy (and savvy) users to look for alternative messaging apps that genuinely respect their privacy and security. A speedy migration away from Facebook-WhatsApp has never been more important.
Drawing from expert insights at Proton, an analysis of alternatives to WhatsApp (and therefore independence from Facebook) is required. End-to-end encryption (E2EE) should be seen as a core requirement for any ‘messenger’ app that claims to be both secure and private. In simple terms, this means that all messages are encrypted on your device and can only be decrypted on the device of the recipient. WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption, so the actual messages are secure within that platform. However, this feature will not stop Facebook from abusing metadata capture: where metadata is the information about whom you communicate with, from where, at what time, how often, and from which device.
Another critical consideration with messaging applications and their level of security is whether or not the apps are engineered using Open-source code and software. By publishing an app’s code publicly, anyone can examine it to ensure the app is doing what it is supposed to be doing. A messaging app’s use of Open-source in its design and application is considered one of the best indicators that an app can actually be ‘trusted’.
As savvy messaging app users seek alternatives to the Facebook-WhatsApp-Instagram ‘data robber barons’, Extremely American (aided by the expert input from Proton of Switzerland) are pleased to provide a thorough list of alternatives along with Pro’s & Con’s provided for each option. The list below is limited to only those alternative messenger apps that leverage both Open-source messaging and end-to-end encryption (E2EE). Please also note that the list below is placed in random order. For a shortlist of the top alternatives in rank order, please refer to the following EA article for additional insights: www.extremelyamerican.com/post/eight-alternatives-to-the-technology-oligarchs
The call-to-action is three-fold: (1) research alternatives to Facebook & WhatsApp, (2) select an alternative messaging app and create an account, and (3) cancel your Facebook-WhatsApp- Instagram accounts and remove the apps from all your devices. The list below will offer convenient reference points to consider for each alternative messaging app available (Information details sourced from: ProtonMail – April 2021).
· Exceptionally good encryption
· Almost no metadata kept
· Protocol independently audited
· Seamless to use on Android
· Disappearing messages
· E2EE text, voice, and video group chat
· Requires a valid phone number to register
· Hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS)
The Signal messaging protocol is an end-to-end messaging protocol developed by the Signal Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by cryptographer and privacy activist Moxie Marlinspike. The Signal Protocol is Open-source, has been professionally audited for security vulnerabilities, and is widely admired for its cryptographic strength.
Because of the quality of the Signal protocol, it is used by a variety of third-party messaging apps to provide secure end-to-end encryption for messages. These include WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Skype, Unlike WhatsApp and other third-party apps that implement the Signal protocol, however, the Signal app from the Signal Foundation is 100% Open-source.
Crucially, considering recent heightened awareness about WhatsApp’s privacy policies, the Signal app and Signal Foundation keep almost no metadata related to the app’s usage. Only “the date and time a user registered with Signal and the last date of a user’s connectivity to the Signal service.” This is a claim that has been proven in court.
The app itself has not been audited, however, and some security concerns exist around Signal’s reliance on Intel Software Guard Extensions (SGX). In theory, this could result in users’ metadata and data (but not messages) being compromised at the server level. This is a particular concern because Signal uses AWS to host its infrastructure, which is subject to legal demand from the US government.
Unlike WhatsApp, Signal is designed to replace your phone’s regular SMS messenger app on Android (not iOS). Texts exchanged to other Signal users are end-to-end encrypted, but texts to non-Signal users are not. Signal will warn you when messages are sent unencrypted.
This makes Signal very transparent in use, but the fact that users must register with a valid phone number to match contacts is also the main source of criticism the app receives. It should be noted, though, that contacts are stored locally only and cannot be accessed by the Signal Foundation.
In addition to messages, Signal supports disappearing messages, E2EE group voice chats, and now group video chats between up to eight users. Signal is a non-profit organization that relies on donations to operate.
· Channels for broadcasting messages
· Bots for managing groups
· Sync across multiple devices (not E2EE)
· Polls, stickers, sharing live location, identity management
· E2EE 1-1 text, voice, and video chat
· Encryption concerns
· Only Secret Chats are E2EE
· Group chats (text or voice) are not E2EE
· Collects lots of metadata
· No group video chats
· Requires a valid phone number to register
· Headquartered in the UAE, which is not known for human rights or privacy from the government (despite having some strong privacy laws)
With over 500 million users, Telegram is an extremely popular WhatsApp alternative. A big part of this popularity is the widespread perception that Telegram is highly secure, a perception only heightened by several governments, notably Indonesia, Russia, and Iran, trying to block or ban the app.
There are, however, some big caveats regarding the security that Telegram offers its users. Regular default “Cloud-based messages,” that can be accessed on any of a user’s devices, are encrypted in transit and when stored on Telegram’s servers, but they are not end-to-end encrypted. Only client-to-client “secret chats” are end-to-end encrypted. Secret Chats are not available for groups or channels.
The open source in-house MTProto encryption used to secure communications in Telegram (whether E2EE or otherwise) has come under criticism from security experts, although the new version (MTProto 2.0) has been formally verified to be cryptographically sound. The Telegram API and all Telegram apps are open source, but its server-side backend is not.
Another issue is that Telegram may collect a great deal of metadata from users: “We may collect metadata such as your IP address, devices and Telegram apps you’ve used, history of username changes, etc.”
On the other hand, Telegram has built its own secure cloud infrastructure, distributed across the globe. The encryption keys used to secure the Telegram Cloud are split in pieces and never stored in the same place as the information they protect.
Security considerations aside, a key feature that contributes to Telegram’s popularity (especially in repressive countries such as Iran, where it enjoys over 40 million users despite government attempts to regulate use of the service) is support for “channels.” Users can create and post to channels that any number of other users can subscribe to.
Public channels can be created using an alias and a URL that anyone can subscribe to, making Telegram a powerful tool for organizing resistance and disseminating information in repressive countries.
Other features that help make Telegram popular include polls, stickers, sharing live locations in chats, and an online authorization and identity management system for those who need to prove their identity. A ‘bots’ feature assists managing groups and channels.
It also features one-to-one voice and video chats that are fully end-to-end encrypted, although group voice chats are not. Group video calls are not supported.
Telegram is funded by public donations (notably from its own founder, Pavel Durov), although it is anticipated that in-app monetization features will be introduced in the future.
· No phone number or email required to sign up
· Almost no metadata kept
· Independently audited
· Swiss-based with own servers
· GDPR compliant
· E2EE group text and voice chat
· Group polling and distribution lists (Android only)
· Not free
· Relatively small userbase
· No group video calls
Like Proton, Threema is based in Switzerland, a country with strong data privacy laws and independent from the United States and European Union. It also owns its own server infrastructure located in Switzerland.
All Threema’s apps use the Open-source NaCl cryptography library for end-to-encryption of all communications, and all have been recently audited (in 2020) by security professionals.
An email address or phone number is not required to register an account, and it is possible to purchase Threema for Android anonymously using Bitcoin. Threema claims this allows you to text and make calls anonymously, and it goes to great lengths to ensure that minimal metadata is collected.
The fact that the app is not free is likely to be a pain point for some, but at around US$3 (one-time purchase), it is unlikely to break the bank for most. This may contribute, however, to one of the biggest downsides with Threema: that its userbase is relatively small.
The Android app features distribution lists that allow you to send messages to multiple separate recipients. In addition to fully E2EE group text and voice calls, Threema offers a group polling feature. E2EE video calls are supported, but not for groups.
· Built for ephemeral messaging
· Anti-censorship feature
· E2EE group text and voice chat
· No phone number or email needed for signup
· Apps themselves are not open source
· Security audits are not published
· No video chat (although available on free Pro version of app)
There are three Wickr apps, with the free Wickr Me being the version designed for personal use. The lowest tier of the more Slack-like Wickr Pro is also free, although it requires you to verify your identity at start-up.
Wickr Me places ephemeral messaging front and center, with messages disappearing from both the sending and receiving devices after a set period (six days by default). Undelivered messages sitting on Wickr servers are also deleted after this time.
You can also set a Burn-On-Read timer to determine how long a message lasts before self-destructing once it has been read. If it is not read, then it will self destruct at the end of the message timer length. All metadata is scrubbed once a message is opened or expires (whichever comes first). Wickr advertises itself as Open-source software, but there are a couple of major caveats to this claim. The code for the core wickr-crypto-c end-to-end encryption protocol that underpins all Wickr apps is available on Github for anyone to examine, but licencing restrictions mean that it cannot truly be described as Open-source.
More serious from a security standpoint, though, is that while the core crypto protocol is source-available, the code for the Wickr apps themselves is not. Wickr says that its code has undergone multiple independent security audits, but the full results of these audits are not publicly available.
No phone number or email is needed to register with the service. Up to 10 people can be invited into a room or end-to-end encrypted text or voice group chat. Video conferencing is not available in Wickr Me, although it is supported in the Wickr Pro app (including E2EE group chat with all room members).
Wickr is hosted on public server networks (such as Google and AWS), but has partnered with Psiphon to offer Wickr Open Access, a powerful anti-censorship feature. Wickr Me is free, but it is funded through Wickr’s premium Pro and Enterprise apps.
· Free option
· E2EE text, voice, and video group chats
· Syncs across up to eight devices
· Advanced video conferencing features
· Quite a lot of metadata logged (and possibly stored in plaintext)
· Phone number or email address required to register
Wire is another service based in privacy-friendly based in Switzerland. A phone number or an email to register. To facilitate syncing across multiple devices, however, Wire keeps quite a lot of metadata.
For years Wire kept a list of all users that a customer has contacted in plaintext on their servers until an account is deleted, and it is unclear if this practice continues. Wire’s privacy white paper, however, makes it clear it logs data such as the participants in a group chat and user-defined folders used for organizing chats.
The functional benefit of this is that it allows Wire to work across multiple devices in a way most E2EE messenger apps (including Signal) do not. It is also worth noting that Edward Snowden recommends using Wire (or Signal).
Wire uses the Proteus protocol to provide end-to-end encryption for text messages. Proteus is an early fork from the code that went on to become the Signal Protocol. Proteus, and all Wire apps, have been publicly audited (making Wire the only app we are aware of to have this done). Voice (up to 25 participants) and video calls (up to 12 participants) are end-to-end encrypted using DTLS with an SRTP handshake.
The app does support advanced video conferencing features that will appeal to business users. Enhanced features like screen sharing, screen recording, and advanced meeting scheduling are not available but in development. Wire is keen to push users toward its premium Pro and Enterprise products, but a free version is available which offers similar features to the Pro app.
Element (formerly Riot.com)
· Free option
· Server federation
· “Bridges” for interoperability with other apps
· E2EE text chat
· No phone number or email needed for signup
· Questions over Matrix server network reliability
· Not fully audited
All the other messenger apps discussed in this article rely on a centralized server network to function (although, as in the case of using AWS, this can be a highly distributed network).
Element is instead built on the idea of federation. Users can set up their own servers using the Matrix communications protocol or connect to Matrix servers that have been set up by other users. Federation has received the support of Edward Snowden, but remains a controversial idea due to the potentially unreliable ad-hoc peer-to-peer nature of such a network.
Matrix servers are interoperable, so any user of any Matrix client (Element is the most popular of these) can communicate with any other Matrix user. Matrix “bridges” even allow for communication with the users of other popular messaging platforms, such as Signal, Slack, or even WhatsApp.
Matrix (and thus Element) uses the Olm implementation of the Double Ratchet algorithm, with Megolm used for group communications. All Element apps, plus the Matrix protocol itself, are Open-source, but have not been formally audited. Olm and Megolm, however, have been audited.
An email or phone number is not required to register with Element, although these can be added to make contact matching easier. By default, messages are hosted on a large public server run by Matrix, but you can connect to any Matrix server or set one up yourself in a matter of seconds.
All text chats and 1:1 voice and video calls are end-to-end encrypted. Group voice and video calls (which also allow screen sharing) leverage Jitsi (without E2EE support in Element at the present time). The Element app is free, but premium plans are available for Element-managed Matrix servers.
Keybase (a CCP affiliated and controlled app making it an inherently compromised app)
· Free (funding model is unclear)
· E2EE text chats with support for public and private channels
· Can connect to people via their social media profiles with PGP verification
· Syncs across multiple devices
· Self-destructing messages
· Stellar wallet
· 250 GB free storage per user
· Encryption is not TOFU
· Owned by Zoom (CCP affiliation disqualifies this app from the outset)
· A lot of metadata logged (much of it shared on a public blockchain)
Keybase is a free and Open-source (FOSS), Chinese-controlled messenger app (servers are not Open-source) that end-to-end encrypts all texts and files between users. Voice and video calls are not supported directly, but are possible using a (not E2EE) Jitsi bot.
E2EE group chat, with support for private and public “Teams” (i.e., channels) is end-to-end encrypted.
Keybase is notable for allowing you to connect to others using their social media (Twitter, GitHub, Reddit, Hacker News, and Mastodon) identities, which are verified using PGP encryption keys. No phone number or email address is required, and the app will sync across multiple devices. The PGP-based end-to-end encryption used by Keybase is solid and underwent a full independent audit in 2019. Interestingly, Keybase is almost unique in not supporting Trust On First Use (TOFU) when connecting to servers. This helps to make it resistant to man-in-the middle attacks.
The app also offers self-destructing messages; bots to automate your Keybase tasks; a Stellar wallet; full PGP support for encrypting and decrypting messages and files; and 250 GB free storage per user.
However, messages are stored on centralized servers (based in the US but accessible by China), which log a worrying amount of personal data. This includes your Team names and memberships, hashed passwords, account activity, your Keybase user ID and your IP address, network activity, and more. Not only is information stored encrypted, but much of it is added (in hashed form) to a public blockchain.
Arguably even more concerning is that Keybase is now owned by Zoom. Zoom is a company widely criticized for its many privacy and security lapses, and which is subject to pressure from and control by the Chinese government. The fact that it is not clear how Zoom benefits from offering Keybase for free may also be a reason for serious concern given its connections to the CCP.
As a replacement for WhatsApp as a general-purpose messenger that genuinely respects your privacy, Signal is an obvious choice, although being hosted on AWS servers remains a concern considering its reliance on SGX. The security concerns around Telegram make it harder to recommend as a simple messenger, although its “channels” feature remains a powerful tool for organizing resistance in restrictive countries.
The other alternative apps discussed all offer useful features that will appeal to those who need them, whether it is anonymous sign-up, business collaboration tools, or server federation. Element/Matrix is a particularly strong choice for privacy enthusiasts, although its niche user base severely hampers its practicality as a WhatsApp replacement.
Another creative alternative for secure communication is end-to-end encrypted email. EA highly endorses the Proton platform. The platform offers the unique advantage of excellent interoperability. That is, you don’t need to have your recipient using the same messenger service to benefit from end-to-end encryption because, unlike any of the messenger apps discussed above, you can send end-to-end encrypted messages to anyone who has an email address using the Proton ‘Encrypt for non-ProtonMail users’ feature. The simplest way to benefit from E2EE, though, is to have both ends of the conversation using ProtonMail. Proton servers are located in privacy-friendly Switzerland, and as with the messenger services discussed in this article, ProtonMail apps are Open-source.
As you take back your privacy and independence in the digital age, anything you do to move more of your personal data behind strong encryption is an important step toward building an internet that puts people first. The additional benefits associated with migrating away from abusive juggernauts like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and YouTube make the migration to independent, secure, and private social apps both necessary and rewarding.
By: Extremely American Colin Wright (with full attributions and expert insights from the team at ProtonMail)