Chats with friends or family will remain safely locked away behind end-to-end encryption, parent company Facebook has confirmed. It’s a small change, but one that paves the way for Facebook to generate more revenue from WhatsApp, which used to charge all users a small annual subscription fee to cover its costs. Facebook dropped this model when it acquired the company back in 2014.
Signal (iOS, Android, Windows, macOS, Linux)
When it comes to WhatsApp alternatives, Signal is usually the first suggestion. That’s because it has a pretty tough stance on privacy – not only is it end-to-end encrypted, like WhatsApp, but its code is open-source. That means anyone is able to scrutinise its practices and make suggestions. Unlike WhatsApp, where users have to trust that Facebook is true to its word (and hasn’t made any honest mistakes), privacy experts are able to check Signal’s code for themselves, suggest improvements, and then check back to see whether the company has made the promised tweaks.
As a result, the open-source nature of Signal means it’s one of the most trusted, secure messaging apps on the planet. Whistleblower Edward Snowden has previously revealed that he uses the app, as well as Twitter creator Jack Dorsey.
But this ironclad security doesn’t mean Signal users are losing out on features. Opening the app for the first time, you’ll find a very similar selection of features to WhatsApp, including group chats, voice messages and video calls with up to eight participants, GIFs, stickers, and more. Best of all, Signal is completely free to use. The app is run by an independent nonprofit that relies on donations, so you can support Signal with as much as you can afford.
And best of all? Unlike WhatsApp, Signal has an official iPad app!
Threema (iOS, Android, Online)
If you want to seriously upgrade your privacy, Threema is a good place to start. At £2.99, it’s not the most affordable option out there, but that’s still a pretty small price to say for securing all of your text messages, videos, voice messages, and files. Unlike WhatsApp, Threema lets you chat anonymously, so there’s no need to hand over your phone number or email to the company when you set-up an account.
Instead, the chat app will randomly generate a Threema ID when you start using the app – this is how friends and family will be able to connect with you inside the app. Better yet, Threema doesn’t display any adverts or collect any information from its users. Everything is shielded with end-to-end encryption, including video calls, files and even status updates (something that’s definitely not the case with all messaging services).
Threema, which is designed, built and hosted in Switzerland, doesn’t skimp on features. As well as the usual text messages, voice and video calls, there’s also secure file sharing, group chats, and lists to broadcast messages to multiple users at once. You’ll be able to send and receive messages on your smartphone, tablet, as well as in any web browser, thanks to the secure online portal too.
Telegram Messenger (iOS, Apple Watch, Android, macOS, Windows, Linux, Online)
Telegram is another hugely-popular alternative to WhatsApp that offers some pretty solid security features. Although, crucially, you’ll need to make some changes in the settings to truly get the most out of this app. That’s because Telegram doesn’t use end-to-end encryption by default. Without any tweaks, your messages will be stored on the firm’s servers, which isn’t ideal. Thankfully, enabling Secret Mode unlocks end-to-end encryption for all communications.
Not only that, but messages will only be stored on your phone. And if someone decides they want to retract a message, it will be deleted from all devices that have received the text. You can also set expiry times on messages, so you don’t need to remember to go back and delete each individual text – they’ll vanish automatically from all devices when the timer hits 00:00.
Telegram is free to download, with the company promising “we are not going to sell ads or introduce subscription fees.”
Like WhatsApp, Telegram isn’t open-source, so its code hasn’t been scrutinised by security researchers like Signal. However, it’s also not owned by Facebook, which has been embroiled in a number of privacy and data scandals, including artificially manipulating the News Feeds of its users to work out whether exposing people to a flood of positive or negative stories and status updates could impact users’ moods in the real-world.
Telegram has some pretty solid features too, including stickers, audio memos, group chats, GIFs, and more. There’s even photo and video editing tools built directly into the messaging app – so you can make any last-minute tweaks before you send to your friends and family.
iMessage (iOS, macOS)
Apple’s iMessage service is available on all Apple devices, which means it’s pretty useless for those who want to communicate with friends on Android or Windows devices. That said, for friends and family firmly within the Apple ecosystem, it’s not a bad system at all. Apple uses end-to-end encryption by default, so all of your text messages, voice memos and videos are protected from any prying eyes as your communications are beamed around the world.
Apple itself is unable to see the contents of the messages sent using its service. The Californian company has a pretty strong stance on the privacy of its users, even going toe-to-toe with the UK Government and FBI when they have submitted requests to break encryption to enable security services to access information from terrorists’ phones.
Non-profit digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has scored iMessage 5 out of a potential 7 points in its scorecard. The Apple-designed system lost points for not making the code behind the service open-source, like Signal, so that security researchers and experts can check Apple’s claims and methods for any loopholes.
Discord (iOS, Android, macOS, Windows, Linux, Online)
Discord started out as a platform for players to discuss video games… but has evolved into something much, much broader. Depending on how you leverage its features, Discord is now recommended as an alternative to privacy-focused messaging services, like Telegram, as well as enterprise solutions like Slack and Microsoft Teams.
Discord has a private messaging feature that’s very similar to what we’ve seen from WhatsApp, but unlike the Facebook-owned chat app (and some of the other entries in this list), there’s no need to hand over your phone number. Like Threema, you can create your own username to identify yourself on the server-based messaging app. This can be a random garble of letters or numbers, if you want to keep your name and number hidden from the service.
Discord users can create a group chat with up to 10 friends. If you want to add more, you’ll need to start your own Discord server and handle the hosting yourself.
The service has a pretty packed list of features, including group chats, video and photo sharing, the ability to send files, and more. It’s also available on a wide range of different platforms.