Encrypted messaging apps and digital privacy in general are in high demand in this era of big tech and heightened cybercrime capabilities. Many developers have created similar but individually unique private messaging apps to fulfill this consumer demand for a way to communicate privately without fear that neither developers nor other third parties like hackers or law enforcement can access messages through a back door.
In other words, only users messaging each other can read those messages. This is called end-to-end encryption. iMessage comes equipped with end-to-end encryption on iPhones, but Google Messages has yet to offer the same end-to-end capability.
Here are the top-rated, free messaging apps created by independent developers other than Google and Apple with end-to-end encryption on Androids and iPhones:
Facebook-owned WhatsApp is by far the most popular and top-rated messaging app with end-to-end encryption in the world. On the App Store, WhatsApp has 6.8 million reviews and a nearly five-star rating average; on Google Play, it has more than 106 million reviews and an average rating of more than four stars.
More than 25 percent of the world’s entire population used WhatsApp as of Feb. 12 because some countries like India and Brazil — WhatsApp’s most frequent users — do not have the same network capabilities as the U.S. The app has come under increasing scrutiny, however, because a number of cybercriminals have taken advantage of the app’s convenience and encryption technology, highlighting the dangers of the app’s unique vulnerabilities and capabilities on a global scale.
In January, two U.N. experts called for an investigation by the U.S. into information they received suggesting Amazon founder Jeff Bezos opened a malware-containing video message on WhatsApp that appeared to come from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman‘s personal account in 2018. The alleged cyberattack made national news.
2. Facebook Messenger
Facebook Messenger does not come up when users search for “encrypted messaging” despite the fact that it is the most popular messaging app with end-to-end encryption. Messenger has 1.1 million reviews on the App Store and an average rating of more than four stars; on Google Play, it has more than 71 million reviews and the same rating.
Messenger has received criticism similar to WhatsApp for helping to fuel criminal activity. The New York Times published a comprehensive report on the child sex abuse and human trafficking that takes place on encrypted messaging apps such as Messenger. The report notes that Messenger only became encrypted after Facebook came under pressure for not taking privacy seriously. “Facebook announced in March plans to encrypt Messenger, which last year was responsible for nearly 12 million of the 18.4 million worldwide reports of child sexual abuse material, according to people familiar with the reports,” the report reads.
Snapchat is a popular app among young smartphone users that allows users to send photos, videos and messages that disappear in seconds, though users can make them last for up to 24 hours if they choose to do so. The app introduced end-to-end encryption in 2018.
Snapchat has 261,000 reviews on the App Store and an average rating of more than four stars; the app has 21 million total reviews on Google Play and the same rating. Users can also video chat with up to 16 contacts. The app’s average user base is very young; 52 percent are under the age of 25, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Telegram is another great app option for a messaging app with end-to-end encryption, especially since it is not tied to a big tech company, so it offers a unique independent app experience. Telegram has 82,000 reviews on the App Store and an average rating of more than four stars; on Google Play, it has 4.6 million total reviews and a four-and-a-half star average rating.
Pavel Durov, the app’s CEO, said in a March 2019 blog post that his app gained 3 million followers after WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger experienced temporary outages, according to digital tech magazine The Verge. Telegram is the only encrypted messaging app that has an age limit; users must be 17 or older to download Telegram. It also has unlimited space to send files and photos without having to delete them to increase storage; it has the ability to create a group chat with 200,000 members, and it touts itself as the fastest messaging app.
While Signal’s userbase is nowhere near that of Messenger or WhatsApp, it also offers a similar alternative to the two apps owned by Facebook with its end-to-end encrypted messaging capabilities. Signal has more than 400,000 reviews on Google Play and an above-four-star rating; on the App Store, it has a five-star rating and nearly 300,000 reviews.
Signal markets itself as a messaging app dedicated to privacy. The app allows users to securely use their real phone numbers and contacts list to communicate with others. It also offers a feature that lets users edit images within the app before sending them to contacts. Signal, unlike Telegram, does not have an age limit.
A federal grand jury subpoenaed the app in 2016, demanding it hand over information from a conversation that took place on the app. Signal, however, could only produce the dates that the users of the conversation in question created and deleted their accounts.
“The Signal service was designed to minimize the data we retain,” Moxie Marlinspike, the founder of Signal owner Open Whisper Systems, said at the time, according to a New York Times report.