Today we communicate with each other over the internet using instant messaging apps like WhatsApp, iMessage, FaceTime, Skype, Allo and Messenger. All are very easy to use with fantastic interfaces and free. But does all this brilliance have a downside and what information are these companies taking from you? Is what you communicate actually private? Can these apps track you and are there real alternatives that honour your privacy?
Is what you say and type being recorded?
All the major apps (i.e. Facebook’s WhatsApp, Apple’s iMessage/FaceTime, Microsoft’s Skype, Google’s Allo, Telegram Signal Private Messenger, Wickr and WeChat) have end to end encryption. This means that it is impossible to intercept and read anything you communicate via your fingers and mouth. They all use Signal’s encryption protocol which scrambles everything between you and the other person in transit so no third party can read anything. Admittedly you do have to turn on encryption manually yourself if you use Facebook Messenger, Telegram or Google Allo.
Do messaging apps have access to anything else on your phone?
For a messaging app to function it needs access to your phone’s contacts so you can connect with other people you know who are using the app. They also need access to your phone’s camera and phone in order to make calls. All of this information is called “metadata”.
Do the app companies know who you are contacting and when?
Media and files sent via these apps are encrypted. However your contacts are not and the major apps store a full copy of your phonebook, on their servers. This type of metadata allows them to record who you call, the date and time. Imagine receiving tests results from a health clinic, calling an addiction helpline for support or booking an online ticket for a secret romantic getaway. A clear picture can be made of what you are up to all of the time if you use these apps!
What do they do with your data?
Your contact metadata is given to the major app companies by you for free. This allows them to sell this data to third party companies who in turn can market their products to you based on this information. Your sensitive calls and messages, to who, when and where are very useful to third parties. Sometimes these third parties may be the police or government agencies!
Can you delete messages you have sent?
All apps allow you to delete your side of the chat but only the private apps (e.g. Signal, Wikr and Wechat) enable you to set messages to auto delete for both parties. This is great so you can be confident that what you said to the other person is permanently deleted.. If you delete something from the major apps only your side is deleted. Most people have a PIN on their phone and encrypt it, but what if they don’t and they lose their phone with all your sensitive and private message? Maybe they decide to export your chats to a computer and use it against you in a court of law!
Are you free to say what you want?
Lately Facebook Messenger and Skype are restricting you from sending offensive or politically incorrect words. Sure you might be against someone swearing at you but isn’t that your role to police the conversation? What about if you wish to speak out against a government’s policy or talk about a sensitive issue in the news? What’s stopping Apple Google and WhatsApp doing the same?.
Are there any apps which are totally private?
The private apps (Signal, Wickr and WeChat) keep the content of your communications encrypted, they do not have access to your contacts nor record who and when you are calling. All are open source so you can inspect the code behind these programs to check how private they are and they do not restrict what you can say.
Are the private apps any different from the major ones?
- Phone calling
- Video conferencing
- Group chats
- Send files, photos and videos
- Typing Status – get a notification the other person is typing
- Read receipts so you know they have read your message
- Use on Windows, Mac and Linux desktops as well
Free software but do you lose your “Free”dom?
So the content of what you communicate with the major apps provided by Google Microsoft, Apple ad Facebook is private using encryption. What they are doing with your permission is tracking what you are up, who you are communicating with and when. If you are ok with this level of surveillance and happy to give this information to them for free then you don’t need to worry. However if you take your privacy seriously how about giving Signal, Wickr or Wechat a go?
I personally use Signal as my goto app but also have both Wickr and Wechat installed as well.
Download Links for these apps:
How I can help you?
My background is in technology and training and for over 10 years I have provided IT Support to home and small business users through my IT company ithound.co.uk. In recent years I have added Cryptocurrencies to my product offering with cryptohound.me.
Whether you are a business wanting to accept cryptocurrencies or an individual interested in investing in them, I will help you get started and provide training and support to give you confidence using them.
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Carl Hughes, The Crypto Hound
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