Ever since WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook in 2014, its reputation has gone down, and with every new Facebook-related scandal WhatsApp suffers. This is made worse by the fact that in America and Europe, Facebook Messenger is the number 2 most popular chat app. And while WhatsApp is still the most popular chat app with more than 2 billion monthly active users worldwide, more and more people are looking for privacy-first replacements.
Why should you drop Meta's chat ecosystem of WhatsApp, FaceBook Messenger, and the recent arrival Threads? The answer is simple, Meta's business model operates by providing you the user with a 'free' service, thereby turning your behavior and data into a marketable product which they can in turn sell to advertising agencies and build their own ad service. The ability to communicate with secure end-to-end encryption shouldn't be dependent upon selling our digital souls. The data mined by these platforms can create a detailed picture of nearly every intimate detail of your life. Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, summed it up well when he stated "We Know Where You Are. We Know Where You've Been. We Can More Or Less Know What You're Thinking About."
This should not be the status quo for our digital existence. Thankfully, there are a number of great private messaging apps available for your smartphone or desktop computer which offer the same ease of use and features, without the painful price tag.
Before deciding on an alternative chat app, it's most important to look at what the international competition does better than WhatsApp, namely their attention to privacy and security.
Here are the six best WhatsApp alternatives:
Image credit: Signal Foundation
One of the most popular privacy-friendly chat apps is Signal (formerly known as TextSecure) with 40 million active monthly users. It is free, has strong quantum resistant encryption, and works on all platforms.
On top of the encryption, which renders messages unreadable to eavesdropping, Signal ensures that very little meta data is generated while messaging. This is important in case the authorities issue a subpoena to the Signal Foundation. The fewer data a service provider collects, the fewer data it can turn over upon receiving a court order.
Like most messaging apps, the installation and operation of Signal are very simple, requiring only a few clicks or screen taps. Photos, videos and audios can be sent in individual as well as group chats. It also offers voice and video calling, so you won’t regret leaving WhatsApp. Messages can be set to disappear after a given time interval for automatic deletion. This guarantees privacy, even if someone else gains physical access to your phone. You can even lock your app to prevent third-parties from accessing your account should you lose your device.
Signal's program code is open source, which means that anyone can review it and check for vulnerabilities. Who exchanges messages with whom and when (=meta data) is not stored by Signal. Many security experts recommend Signal, such as Bruce Schneier and Edward Snowden. Signal is also used by a large number of people so there will be less of a need to badger your friends and loved ones to make the switch to a WhatsApp alternative.
However, to use Signal one must provide a valid mobile phone number to the messaging service, which prevents anyone from using Signal with complete anonymity. There are possibilities to register an account with a VoIP number, but these services may be blocked from signing up.
Our rating: Best choice for popular privacy-friendly WhatsApp alternative with a large number of users.
Image credit: Threema GmbH
Another well-known alternative to WhatsApp is Threema. You can register a Threema account anonymously as a phone number is not required. Anonymous payment is also possible via Bitcoin. All communication via the messaging app is end-to-end encrypted and meta data is kept to a minimum. For example, the meta data about who and when you are messaging is not logged. You can send images, text messages, and GPS locations in the chat easily as the app has a similar intuitive functionality as WhatsApp. Threema also offers encrypted phone calls. Threema syncs your contact list so that you can easily find other users.
The client software is open source and can be viewed by anyone with an internet connection.
Convenience, data protection, and data security are right, but they come at a (low) price: The app costs a one-time fee of 3.99 Euros.
Our rating: Best WhatsApp alternative for anonymous and privacy-friendly messaging.
Image credit: The Matrix Foundation
Element is a universal secure chat application designed to enhance communication and collaboration.
While the messenger app Element is quite unknown, it is used by tech-savvy government employees who highly value it for its security and privacy. Element has also found footing within the private sector with many businesses adopting it as a free and opensource solution. The app is available for Android, iOS, Windows, Linux and macOS. The Android version does not require any Google services and can be downloaded via F-Droid - just like Tuta. Element can be used directly with a web browser without installation as well. The user interface of Element might take some getting used to for WhatsApp users as it differs in some ways.
Element offers end-to-end encryption for voice-over-IP phone calls, video chats and the classic messaging services for sending texts and pictures. Group voice and video calls, however, are currently not encrypted end-to-end. If downloaded via Google's Play Store, the Element app features an application library that ensures the app is constantly connected to Google. Therefore, privacy-sensitive users are recommended to install the app from F-Droid, which does not include this library.
As an open-source application, built on the federated Matrix, you can also fully take control over your own data by hosting it on your own server. As all Matrix servers are interoperable, you can also send messages to users of other Matrix-based apps (Element is the most popular one among these). So called Matrix 'bridges' even enable you to send messages to other messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Signal and SMS.
Our rating: Best choice for open source enthusiasts as there is a fully de-googled Android version available.
Image credit: Wire Swiss GmbH
Wire, another encrypted chat app, is based in Switzerland. Wire lets you communicate via voice, text and video chat. It supports GIFs, file sharing, emojis and other options that your are used to from using Whatsapp.
Wire can be synced across devices - unlike WhatsApp - and you can connect multiple accounts to the app. Wire is fully open source and has published its code on GitHub for community security review. It relies on the Signal protocol that is also being used by Signal and Whatsapp to encrypt messages.
The messaging app Wire is free of charge for mobile and desktop users. It is run as a freemium model as there are also paid options for business customers.
Image credit: Telegram FZ-LLC
The chat app Telegram has gained a lot of respect and popularity for fighting for anti-censorship in autocratic countries, namely in the founder's home country Russia. With 500 million active users, it is one of the most popular WhatsApp alternatives. Similar to WhatsApp, it makes us of a double-tick system to display when someone received and read a message. Like Signal, Telegram offers the ability to automatically delete a message after a certain time.
However, Telegram is a cloud-based service without end-to-end encryption; only client-to-client 'secret' chats are stored encrypted on user devices locally. With the cloud-based service, chats are re-encrypted on the server. During this process, however, operators do have access to the data.
Additionally Telegram is not as sparse with meta data collection as Threema or Signal as it may collect the following meta data from users: “We may collect metadata such as your IP address, devices and Telegram apps you’ve used, history of username changes, etc.” Depending on your threat model and privacy concerns this could be a deal breaker.
Telegram is as easy to use as other messaging apps such as WhatsApp. Additionally, you can send text and media messages in a chat with up to 200,000 users, or create 'channels' to which an unlimited number of users can subscribe to.
Telegram's apps (client software) are free, available on all clients and open source, so anyone can view them, while the central server software is proprietary. Former WhatsApp users have also often opted for Telegram because they can quickly import their WhatsApp chats into Telegram.
Image Credit: SimpleX
SimpleX is the most recent addition to the world of end-to-end encrypted messaging applications. This gave them an advantage by allowing them to learn from the mistakes of older encrypted messaging apps. For starters, SimpleX does not require a phone number or even a randomized ID key for sharing with conversation partners. By simply scanning a QR code, you can add friends and family to shared groups or individual chat sessions.
Following the lead of services like Mastodon, Session, or Matrix, SimpleX also leaves behind the centralized server model, opting instead for a decentralized network. This approach allows for greater stability and network resilience. No need to worry that a networking error brings down the entire platform!
By introducing a true incognito mode, they create individual fingerprints for each unique chat so that creating larger connection maps between your conversation partners is impossible. You might be asking, how can these messages be delivered without unique identifiers? The team claims to avoid this potential pitfall because "instead of user IDs used by all other platforms, SimpleX uses temporary anonymous pairwise identifiers of message queues, separate for each of your connections — there are no long term identifiers."
With SimpleX you can truly own your data. Your chat information is stored on your device and you also have the option to host your own servers which can communicate with any other SimpleX users.
As with Element and other decentralized platforms, this service is less popular than some of the giants like Signal, but the additional features make it a must try for those whose personal well-being and safety demand a greater amount of privacy.
In conclusion, we can say that there are lots of great messaging apps that easily exceed WhatsApp in regards to security, privacy, and features. As privacy-focused developers we can say that Signal, Threema and Element are our personal favorites among the ones presented here, we are eagerly watching the development of SimpleX and are optimistic about what they have to offer. Please do your own research as well before choosing one of these WhatsApp alternatives to increase your level of privacy.
In addition, it is of course recommendable to also get a secure email account due to its interoperability. With Tuta you can email anyone anywhere in the world - also encrypted.
After all, the more data you encrypt, the more secure you are on the web! Sign up now.