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WhatsApp versus Telegram

WhatsApp users have until 15 May to decide whether they want to accept Facebook’s new terms of service and privacy policy for the platform, or stop using the mobile instant messaging app.

Facebook first issued its ultimatum in the first week of January, initially giving users until 8 February 2021 to agree to the new terms and privacy policy.

However, Facebook extended the deadline following widespread backlash over concerns from users that WhatsApp user data would be shared with the Facebook social network.

Facebook has assured that the change only applies to business messaging on WhatsApp, but this hasn’t stopped people from checking out other platforms and more carefully scrutinising the data that Facebook collects through WhatsApp.

Telegram is a popular choice as a WhatsApp alternative due to its rich feature set. Its claims that it is more secure than WhatsApp has also helped drive adoption.

Signal is another alternative that has received a lot of attention after being endorsed by Elon Musk and Edward Snowden.

While Telegram and Signal have seen significant uptake since the public outcry over WhatsApp’s ultimatum, data shows that WhatsApp remains the mobile messaging platform of choice in South Africa.

This is to be expected — even after the 15 May deadline — as the inconvenience of using a second messaging app is far greater than that of clicking “Accept” on a terms of service popup in WhatsApp.

However, it’s position of dominance is not absolute. If WhatsApp were to push through a change that truly frustrates users or badly degrades the user experience, it could rapidly lose its market power. Just ask BlackBerry Messenger.

As a starting point for a comparison, it is necessary to make a distinction between a massaging app’s security features and its privacy policy.

WhatsApp offers exemplary security, including:

  • End-to-end encryption by default using the Signal Protocol — the same encryption scheme as Signal.
  • Only holding encrypted messages for as long as it takes to deliver them, then deleting the messages from their servers.

Privacy-wise, WhatsApp is the weakest of the three apps compared in this article.

WhatsApp gathers much more personally-identifying information than Telegram and Signal. It is also part of the Facebook ecosystem and there are legitimate concerns over the amount of data that might be shared between WhatsApp and Facebook’s other services.

When you send a message over WhatsApp and Signal, it is encrypted on your phone and sent to one of the platforms’ servers.

The message is then forwarded, in its encrypted state, to the person or group you are sending it to. Once delivered, the message is deleted from the server.

In other words, the unencrypted message only exists on your phone and on the phones of the people you sent it to.

Telegram has built its platform on an entirely different philosophy. By default, Telegram stores and keeps messages on its servers, along with the keys to decrypt them. It calls these “cloud chats”.

While Telegram does offer “secret chats” — a feature that works similarly to WhatsApp and Signal’s end-to-end encryption — security professionals have warned that Telegram’s encryption is based on an unproven algorithm, custom-developed by Telegram itself.

Telegram’s cloud chats have the benefit that you can log in to your Telegram account from anywhere and access all your messages without having to restore them from a backup.

However, it has a major drawback in that you have to trust that Telegram will not read the contents of your messages, sell them, or monetise them in some other way in future.

WhatsApp’s main weakness security-wise is the way it handles cloud backups for your messages. If you choose to enable cloud backups, your messages are either stored on Google’s servers (on Android), or Apple’s (on iPhone) and you rely on whatever encryption they use.

Backing up your WhatsApp messages to the Apple or Google cloud is, in principle, similar to Telegram cloud chats.

Apple, Google, and Telegram may use their own encryption to protect your messages, but they also hold the keys to decrypt them.

Comparison of messaging app features — WhatsApp vs. Telegram vs. Signal

The following table compares the key technical and design differences between WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal.

Telegram recently announced that it will be expanding its video capabilities in May, promising to turn Telegram into a powerful platform for group video calls.

“Screen sharing, encryption, noise-cancellation, desktop and tablet support – everything you can expect from a modern video conferencing tool, but with Telegram-level UI, speed and encryption,” the company said.

Telegram has also previously disclosed that it plans to roll out advertising in the large public broadcasting groups hosted on the platform. It will introduce its own ad platform rather than supporting and sharing user data with third-party ad platforms.

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