Instant messaging applications date back to 1996 when ICQ (I Seek You) first garnered attention as the first operative instant messaging service. Faster bandwidths, coupled with added personalisation, became possible made them more user friendly.
An individual or organisation relies on its messaging app to conduct a dialogue. Messenger applications are expected to fulfil certain aspects of communication, user privacy, and security to assure usability and convenience.
Whatsapp, Signal, and Telegram get a multitude of these details right. There are instances where the applications present similar features and stand out at the same time.
With our lives so rigidly intertwined with messaging apps, user security and privacy become important facets that require protection. This is why Whatsapp’s recent policy change stirred uncertainty amongst users. Recently, Whatsapp has agreed to share user information with parent company Facebook.
In light of this, users might want to check out alternatives like Signal or Telegram, which offer better features and security and privacy options. In this article, we compare the applications of Whatsapp, Signal, and Telegram.
Who owns WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal and do they generate revenue?
Whatsapp was initially founded by Brian Acton and Jan Koum in 2009. The duo previously worked at Yahoo!
Facebook acquired Whatsapp in 2014 for $19.1 billion and thus has access to information relevant to Facebook company products. Facebook’s revenue model exhibits the sale of ads on social media and other applications.
As ads are its financial engine, Facebook is generating a new model that inculcates Whatsapp in the revenue stream.
In February 2020, Whatsapp crossed 2 billion active users, making it Facebook’s second-biggest property, post its own namesake.
Ads leading to Whatsapp for further business would be charged a fixed price to benefit from the feature.
Telegram was launched in 2013 by two brothers, Nikolai and Pavel Durov. The app has so far been financed by Pavel Durov mostly through donations, grants and private funds.
Pavel stated in his recent blog that Telegram aims to start generating revenue by 2022. To quote him “We will do it in accordance with our values and the pledges we have made over the last 7 years.”
From what it seems, the app plans to make revenue by adding special, paid features for power or business users.
Moxie Marlinspike, an American Cryptographer, initially developed Signal in 2015 under the Open Whisper System umbrella. In February 2018, the app was transferred over to the Signal Foundation.
The Signal Foundation is a 501c3 non-profit company based out of California, USA. Brian Acton, a co-founder of Whatsapp, supported it and helped create the foundation a little over a year after he left Whatsapp and Facebook. Freedom of Press Foundation also supports them.
Security and Privacy
User security and privacy are arguably the most important talking points when discussing a safe instant messaging platform. Most messaging apps use at least some sort of encryption to keep their data from prying eyes.
Encryptions use algorithms to scramble data at its source and decode it using a key on the receiving end. Instant messaging apps use different types of encryptions to regulate the safety of user data.
Though a service might use the most sophisticated encryption methods, the application moderators, decide which data gets encrypted. Whatsapp and Signal happen to use the same E2E encryption protocol. Telegram uses the partially open-source MTProto protocol to enforce encryp0tion.
A table at the bottom of the section summarises each of the app’s security features.
WhatsApp E2E encryption
Whatsapp and Signal offer the most sought out E2E encryption model. E2E works in a way which allows only the sender and receiver to view shared content.
Open Whisper Systems partnered with Whatsapp in November 2014 to integrate the Signal Protocol into the app, making it fully end=to-end encrypted by April 2016.
All the messages on Whatsapp remain E2E encrypted, but Whatsapp doesn’t encrypt your metadata and online backups. This results in a loophole from which user data can be retrieved externally.
Metadata is a summary of the basic information about data. It includes details such as the time and location of a certain message.
Whatsapp also offers two-factor authentication (2FA) and fingerprint scan to unlock your messages.
The primary motivation behind Signal was to provide the most secure medium of communication for users. Signal Protocol uses E2E encryption to pass information regardless of the type of file shared. It is by far one of the most secure messaging apps on the planet right now.
The app has two-factor authentication, and users can lock the app using their own biometric data.
Signal’s Sealed Sender feature lets users mask the metadata of their messages. This doesn’t allow the app itself to know any characteristic of a text. Calls are relayed through Signal’s own servers to maintain privacy.
Besides this, Signal’s source code is open source and peer-reviewed, which means as more and more developers fiddle with the code to find potential weaknesses, Signal only becomes more secure over time.
MTProto is a partly open-source protocol opted by Telegram to encrypt user data. It decrypts and re-encrypts user data at the server level, before being sent to the receiver. Telegram can theoretically monitor all the contents being shared.
However, the Secret Chat feature in the app uses the safer, E2E option, which again is a closed-sourced proprietary. As the facts present themselves, Telegram’s security can’t be vouched for a safe environment.
Telegram lacks two-factor authentication but has a built-in passcode or fingerprint lock feature.
|Encryption method||Signal Protocol (E2E)||Signal Protocol|
|Type of encryption||Open-sourced||Open-sourced||Partially open-sourced|
|Passcode protection||Fingerprint||Pincode/ Fingerprints||Built-in/|
User security and privacy go hand in hand. A lacklustre security system will greatly hamper the user data in circulation. This puts the user data being shared with the application in jeopardy.
Data collection practices
One way to avoid unwanted spillage of sensitive information is to limit customer data sharing with applications. Notwithstanding, Whatsapp collects extensive amounts of user data. Attributes shared with Whatsapp upon installation are:
- Device information
- Advertising data
- Purchase history
- Coarse location
- Email address
- Performance and diagnostic data
- User-related content
With E2E encryption not present for metadata or online back-ups, any of the above information could be accessed or shared with interested parties.
- Contact information
- Phone number
- User ID
Your phone number is the only data point Signal collects from you. Considering the extent of Whatsapp’s grip over data collection, the recent changes in its privacy policies don’t fail to spark a thought.
A month was given to opt-out of these settings then; you can check if you’ve opted out using the Request account info function in Settings.
The new statement acts as nothing but a clarification of the exact parameters being shared with its parent company, which now enlist:
- Profile name and picture
- IP address
- Battery Level
- Signal Strength
- Browser and App version
- Identifiers that are unique to Facebook company products.
- Internet Service Provider and connection information.
- Device operations information that is unique to Facebook company products.
Every messaging application seats a set of characteristic features that can be later built upon. The scope of any feature varies by the application. Whatsapp, Signal, and Telegram share some among them.
However, there are defining points within these features that improve an app’s functioning and benefit the user.
A table at the section’s end illustrates the mentioned similarities and contrasts present these applications’ features.
WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram all allow sharing media, files, contact and location details. The differentiating point lies in the size limit for sending over these files; which goes as follows:
- WhatsApp: 16MB for media, 100MB for documents and files.
- Signal: Images are capped at 8MB, other media and documents have a 100MB size limit.
- Telegram: The size limit for any file is 2GB.
Voice and Video Calls
Whatsapp and Signal are laced with fully functional voice and video calling features. Telegram’s voice and video calling services are still in beta-testing, with an expected roll-out soon. Users can voice or video call up to 5 people using Signal.
Group chats remain an unalienated feature across all 3 applications. They each provide support for group chats in the following fashion.
- WhatsApp: Support for up to 256 participants.
- Signal: Chat groups of up to 1000 participants.
- Telegram: Supports up to 200,000 participants.
Telegram has a separate channels feature from where a single-host chat room can be organised.
Disappearing messages can be used to send sensitive information using all three apps. Messages can be made to disappear on Signal from anywhere between 5 seconds to seven days.
Whatsapp and Telegram can be accessed through a browser, unlike Signal, which has a dedicated client. Whatsapp requires your phone to be connected to the internet if you want browser access.
The Signal desktop client is independent of the phone app. However, it’ll only work when linked with Signal on your phone.
Whatsapp and Signal support smartphone backups. Signal, however, does not provide cloud back-up akin to Whatsapp. Telegram, on the other hand, uses cloud storage instead of back-up.
Windows and macOS applications
Dedicated applications of all the applications exist on Windows. Whatsapp does not have an application on the macOS platform.
|Sharing files and media||✓||✓||✓|
|Sharing location details and contacts||✓||✓||✓|
|Voice and video calls||✓||✓||beta|
|Group Chats||Up to 256 participants||Up to 1000 participants||Up to 200,000 participants|
|Bots and Broadcast Channels||✓||✓|
|Browser access||Only with phone connected to the internet.||✓|
|macOS and Windows applications||Windows application only||✓||✓|
|Cloud backup||Free on iCloud or Google Drive|
Also read: How to install and use Signal on a desktop?