Love him or hate him, Edward Snowden made many of us more aware.
We now pay close attention to our online privacy and care about things like metadata, surveillance, digital snooping, and data theft. While governments and companies wage war about how much of our information should be accessible in different situations, app developers are giving us the tools to decide for ourselves what we want to share.
They're creating encrypted services and launching end-to-end encryption options we can enable in apps. With these tools, we're able to make sure that only us - and the people we're communicating with - can read what is sent. Nobody in between, not the government nor even the companies and developers offering these tools, can access it.
Many different departments and police agencies prefer to have access to all our communications in order to stop criminals, and because of that, end-to-end encrypted services, which again means only the sender and the recipient are able to read messages, are hotly debated. But privacy campaigners warn that undermining encryption is a rights violation.
Sometimes encryption happens automatically, so there's no need to turn on a setting. Other times, it's trickier. You may even need to set up secret chats. In the post-Snowden era, you can never be too concerned about your privacy. With that in mind, here are some of the best encrypted messaging apps available now for Android and iOS devices.
Best encrypted messaging apps
In alphabetical order:
Facebook Messenger barely made this list, because technically, it isn't fully end-to-end encrypted. We only included it because it's the world's most popular messaging app, and it does actually offer an optional end-to-end encryption feature, called Secret Conversation, which you can enable for individual chat conversations from an Android or iOS device (it's not yet available for desktops).
Messages sent using end-to-end encryption won't support GIFs, calls, or videos, but Facebook users will be able to set timers on messages, enabling the threads to self-destruct after a set amount of time, sort of like Snapchat Snaps. Messenger's encryption is also based on Open Whisper System's Signal Protocol, which is whistleblower Snowden's preferred means of encryption.
Facebook said both you and the other person in the secret conversation have a device key that you can use to verify that the messages are end-to-end encrypted. The feature only works from one phone, tablet, or computer. Keep in mind that the person you're messaging could still choose to share the conversation with others via a screenshot. To learn more, check out Facebook's Help Center.
Open Whisper Systems' Signal is probably the best-known messaging app for mobile users concerned about their privacy. It is a free app that provides messaging and voice-call services - and everything is completely end-to-end encrypted. You can send text messages to individuals and groups, place calls, share media and other attachments to your phone contacts, and more.
The best part is you don't have to use PIN codes or generate special logins. Messages can also self-destruct after a set amount of time. And if you want to use Signal from your computer, there's a new Chrome browser plugin for desktops.
Silent Circle is another trusted solution that provides not only secure-communications software but also hardware like the Blackphone. The company's mobile-messaging platform, Silent Phone, offers encrypted, self-destructing messages and file transfers as well as encrypted video and voice calls. You hold the encryption key, not Silent Circle, so while your data does pass through Silent Circle's network, it can't read anything. Unfortunately, you must be a paid subscriber to use the app.
Telegram Messenger is one of the more user-friendly solutions - and it's marketed as the "fastest". Just link your Telegram account to your phone number, and you can use the app to send encrypted chat messages over the cloud. You can even set message to self-destruct. Everything on Telegram, including chats, groups, media, etc, is encrypted. It also includes fun photo- and video-editing tools, as well as a sticker/GIF platform so you can get creative with your chats.
WhatsApp slowly rolled out its end-to-end encryption offering. It first partnered with Open Whisper Systems in 2014 to add the same encryption methods used in Signal, and then in 2016, it announced that all WhatsApp communications - voice messages, photos, video messages, chats, group chats, etc - are protected by end-to-end encryption. It even provides a security-verification code that you can share with a contact to ensure that your conversation is encrypted.
Wickr Me is a lesser-known end-to-end encrypted-messaging app, but it works much like the others. You can send private, self-destructing messages, photos, video, and voice messages to other Wickr contacts. It also deletes metadata like geotags and message times. Plus, there's a
"Secure Shredder" feature that enables you to securely erase attached files, messages, and other data should someone try to recover anything.
Viber recently joined the end-to-end encryption crowd. It's unique in that it sports a colour-coded system that show how protected your conversations are with a person. Grey means encrypted communications, green means encrypted communications with a trusted contact, and red means there is an problem with the authentication key. Viber can also hide chatrooms on a shared device. And everything, from text to voice messaging, is tied to your number. But if you want to call non-Viber users, you'll have to pay up.
Apple’s default messaging app is also encrypted, but encryption experts have noted iMessage uses an Apple-developed encryption that doesn't follow all of the best practices. You can’t verify contacts’ identities, for instance, and the code isn’t open to independent review. Also, an exploit was recently found that would allow a sophisticated attacker to decrypt photos and videos sent over the service. Still, Apple couldn’t read the messages even if they were ordered to by a court order, so that's nice.