Privacy in the modern era is a tricky thing. No really. We hold it close to our hearts when it’s comfortable, but we readily hand over our email, phone number and even home address for random contests, believing deep down that those personal information will never find their way in the wrong hands.
But reality has caught up with us and while we readily trade personal information to use many services for ‘free’ *coughGmailcoughFacebookcough*, this tradeoff is coming to the end of the road.
Recently, Facebook-owned WhatsApp alerted users that information obtained from their chats on the platform will be shared across the Facebook family and the free social network service will be using that information with advertisers, to help companies market their products more efficiently, based on the level of interest you’re sharing.
This sent alarm bells ringing to even the most nonchalant of folks like your boomer uncle. Even though the company has always said this would happen, and in some cases, it already happened. Except in Europe, because strict data protection laws are preventing Facebook from doing this thing.
But short of moving to Europe, there’s little you can do, because this has been going on for quite some time, and your only option is to abandon WhatsApp for an alternative. And while it might not be abandoning anything, Telegram is reporting it gained 25 million users in 72 hours, which means users are tired of the change in rules.
But the alternatives out there… are not quite as simple. The alternatives are free, but as they say, if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.
Here are comparable, if not superior alternatives for you, to bring your next group chats on, and let’s face it, what you choose is dependent on features, your political inclinations and if you have the will to make all your friends migrate with you.
Owned by: Facebook Inc
Primary base of operations: USA
Number of users: 2 Billion active users (March 2020)
Claim to fame: Probably your first chat app on your very first smartphone
WhatsApp is not the same WhatsApp that you had downloaded the very first time you owned an Apple iPhone. Some might even recall that WhatsApp used to be a paid app, before it went free, and before it was acquired by Facebook.
WhatsApp was launched in 2009 by Brian Acton and Jan Koum. Interestingly, both founders applied to Facebook sometime in 2007 but were rejected. Ultimately this turned out well when Facebook acquired WhatsApp to the tune of US$19.3 billion in February 2014.
Even before its acquisition, WhatsApp was one of the most popular messaging apps in the world, and Facebook acquisition took the app to a wider group of users, though it also brought along a good amount of drama behind it. For one thing, its features are rather antiquated, as users can only have the app on one phone, and on one PC using the web interface.
Want to save your chats? You can, but the files are not cross compatible, as Apple users need to use iCloud and Android users can back up on Gmail and guess what? Apple users cannot reinstall from Gmail and vice versa, so switching platforms is a pain.
In a nutshell, the new policy will allow WhatsApp to share data with Facebook. With information obtained from Facebook, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, and now WhatsApp, will allow Facebook to develop a pretty sophisticated marketing machine which is a dream for all marketing folks around the world but we’ll never know how that information is ultimately used.
Sounds dystopian but it’s Mark Zuckerberg’s company and it’s down to him how he runs it for better (or for worse).
As for the founders Koum and Acton, they have both gone their separate ways. Koum in some reports is still connected to Facebook. While Acton has gone on to build another messaging competitor – Signal (more on that later)
Despite millions of users, WhatsApp has not been embraced globally. It’s been banned in:
- United Arab Emirates (UAE)
Owned by: Telegram FZ LLC
Primary base of operations: Dubai / London
Number of users: 500 million active users (January 2021)
Claim to fame: You’ve probably moved here due to changes in WhatsApp; or you’ve always been on the platform to seek refuge from your boomer uncle
Telegram is probably benefiting the most from WhatsApp’s recent change, and the values of the founder’s are pretty much aligned with anyone who’s anti-monopoly, anti-authoritarian, and most of all, anti-Facebook.
Launched by brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov in 2013, Telegram is pretty much what WhatsApp could have been if development continued without Facebook.. Packed with features and active development, whatever WhatsApp has now, Telegram had it years ago, and then some.
With a more powerful Search feature, users can easily search for photos, files and even links, schedule messages in group chats, pin important messages to group chats so it doesn’t get drowned, and even edit messages after they have been sent. Wow.
And unlike WhatsApp, you can install and log in to Telegram chats across multiple phones and computers, and not limit it to one phone and one web app. It’s also platform agnostic, so you can have the same chat on Android and Apple devices, without worrying about old chats, videos and photos when you change phones.
For anyone who has changed phones, Telegram makes it dead simple for all chats to be migrated over. Simply login and you’re pretty much done. The features are pretty much what everyone needs and entire communities come to life on Telegram, making it one of the most robust chat apps.
For all of Telegram’s marvel, reports show that the company operates out of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where surprise, WhatsApp is banned. Pavel Durov does maintain a Telegram channel which constantly updates his thoughts about his app and competitors on a fairly regular basis.
Still, Pavel Durov himself is not without drama. Having left Russia in 2014, his original start-up, VK, had been taken over by Vladimir Putin’s political party as a result of his refusal to hand over personal information of individuals involved with the Ukranian protest movement. Hence, it comes as no wonder that Durov advocates strongly for privacy. It also means that while Telegram has a Russian origin, due to the nationality of its founder, the app itself is not a Russian one.
And from Russia to the UAE, we’re not quite sure if the values of both countries fully align with Durov’s values as well. If you’re moving here as a result of waning popularity of WhatsApp, it’s not a bad place to be but who knows what the future might hold.
Telegram is also not widely embraced, and it is banned in:
- Hong Kong
Owned by: Tencent
Primary base of operations: China
Number of users: 1.2 Billion active users (Q3 2020)
Claim to fame: The OG all-in-one app that handles your life, from end to end, including bill payments and search. It’s basically a mini ecosystem really.
With Western Internet development cut off from China, the origins of WeChat are a feat in itself.
Calling WeChat a chat app would be an insult to the service. If there’s something you need done, WeChat has it all but not in the way Telegram has chat nailed down for communication.
In fact, WeChat is simply part of how users go about their everyday life in China. The app is used to pay for everything, making it the default wallet for everyone in China. From airline tickets, taxi, movie tickets, and general payments, WeChat started as a communications tool but it now operates outside of its main chat functionality. Companies build full ecosystems of their business within WeChat, which means that no one would ever need to leave the app to live their lives.
In an almost alternate universe compared to the West, China’s Internet development takes place in a period where the Chinese government provides funding while giving Internet companies full reign on development. The government is like the Godfather Don Corleone who will come and collect one day.
In exchange, the Chinese government reportedly has full reign on all communication on the app itself. While other chat apps might use data to have consumers buy more products, the Chinese government feeds it to build a robust surveillance programme.
It’s actually quite brilliant in the sense that if life was all fine and dandy, why would you ever need to act against the system? To do so would be to remove bad actors who might rock this fragile system.
Regardless, WeChat is an amazing service by most counts and sadly one would need to live in China to experience its full set of features. And, the Chinese government’s watchful eye.
Alas, it’s not the easiest of tool to use. Chat history don’t follow you when you switch devices, and good luck if you don’t use the app for extended periods. Tencent makes it a pain to log back in, where you need your fellow WeChat friends to authenticate you before you’re allowed back in.
WeChat is banned in:
- Nowhere but no one uses it much outside of China and the Chinese speaking community
Owned by: Signal Foundation
Primary base of operations: USA
Number of users: Unconfirmed
Claim to fame: Journalists using apps like Signal to encrypt chats for the Panama Papers’ expose
Among all the mainstream chat apps, Signal is one of the newest to hit the market and most lauded, notably by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Most might remember him as the individual who leaked a good amount of classified information from the CIA. It made Barack Obama look pretty bad as it was during his tenure, and in some ways set the course for the US losing a good amount of moral standing in the public eye.
Originally created by Moxie Marlinspike and, now, funded by Brian Acton (formerly with WhatsApp) both are committed to keeping private communication accessible and within easy access.
Among all the chat apps highlighted here, Signal is the only one with a non-profit status and while that could change in the future, the founders don’t seem to have a track record of allowing such moves to happen.
You’re not going to find most of your contact list here for now, but it is possibly could be the next best destination if privacy is your top concern. The UI is very similar to that of Telegram with usage being even more utilitarian.
In a vote of confidence for Signal’s security protocols, its underlying technology has been adopted into WhatsApp, Messenger, and even on Google’s Allo. The Signal Protocol combines the Double Ratchet algorithm, prekeys, and a triple Elliptic-curve Diffie–Hellman (3-DH) handshake, and uses Curve25519, AES-256, and HMAC-SHA256 as primitives.
To the layman, what this means that if someone would like to eavesdrop on your conversation they would not be able to do so. Messages sent through Signal are not stored in the servers and will only be decrypted once it lands on the intended recipient which forms the basis of end to end encryption. The additional layers help ensure the security of the protocol.
If the ‘competition’ places faith in the protocol, won’t that mean even more one can trust the chat app (Signal) built on top of it?
Owned by: Line Corporation
Primary base of operations: Japan / Korea
Number of users: 84 Million active users (August 2020)
Claim to fame: The cutest stickers you’ve ever seen in a chat app
Similar to how WeChat had grown out of the public eye, LINE had its own unique evolution largely due to language and demographics.
For the most part, LINE is strong in Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, and Indonesia, which is probably why you’ve not heard about it.
But, you might have seen its mascots and stickers which have spun off to become huge IPs by themselves. Friends would actually buy sticker sets and gift others to join the network. Could anyone resist Baby Yoda stickers not found anywhere else? We wouldn’t!
Entire chats can be conducted purely through stickers alone and it’s a phenomenon best experienced once you’re in the ecosystem.
Famed for collaborations, LINE is uniquely Japanese in its approach. In some ways users have to bend and adapt themselves to the app. What you see is what you get.
Interestingly while LINE has a huge adoption in Japan, its parent company originates from Korea. And, in Korea the preferred messaging app of choice is not LINE but KakaoTalk. Japanese and Korean relationships in the past have filled entire history books but over time they realized that the pursuit of profits is a much more productive endeavour.
For many, particularly in Japan, LINE is in some ways to superapp which folks use to go about their daily lives. Over time, it has become more like WeChat as opposed to Facebook in functionality, which is unique in the sense of how Asian influence dictates development.
Privacy wise, LINE has end to end encryption for chats but it already feeds in information into the app itself for advertising needs so that’s pretty moot.
If the ones listed above don’t entice you, there are several others available. The question is, are your friends and family on it?
- Discord (for gaming)
- ICQ (yes still alive)
- KakaoTalk (used mostly in Korea)
- Kik Messenger (once a possible WhatsApp alternative)
- Slack (enterprise)
- Microsoft Teams (enterprise)
- Viber (one of the first to implement VoIP calling)
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Gerald currently straddles between his love of video games and board gaming. There’s nothing that interests him more than trying out the newest and fanciest gadget in town as well. He dreams of publishing a board game sometime in the future!