Mobile chat services have put our friends and families at our fingertips, and group chats have revolutionized the way we socialize, collaborate, and organize. Unfortunately, not all chat services put security as their top priority. For some, however, it’s a selling point.
The main security concern with messaging services is ensuring that only the intended recipients can read your messages. The best services do this with a process called end-to-end encryption (E2EE), where the messages are encrypted in such a way that only the proper recipients—not the messaging company and not anyone spying on your activity—can see message contents .
Below we detail how each of the three main secure messaging services—Signal, Telegram, and WhatsApp—fare in our testing for security, privacy, ease of use, social features, and video and voice chat so that you can pick the one that’s right for you.
Which Messaging App Is the Most Secure?
All three of the products in this roundup use E2EE, but they’re not all implementing the same way, which creates real differences between the services. Both Signal and WhatsApp use E2EE by default for all person-to-person and group chats, as well as voice and video. Both also use the Signal Protocol(Opens in a new window)which has been evaluated and implemented by Google, Meta (read: Facebook), and others.
There’s a caveat to WhatsApp’s E2EE implementation, however. If you message a business account, your message contents are not encrypted. Business accounts are clearly marked, and there’s certainly not the same expectation of privacy when talking to Al’s Discount Empanada Barn instead of your spouse.
There’s a much larger caveat to Telegram’s E2EE implementation. With that app, only optional Secret Chats are end-to-end encrypted. All other chats—normal one-to-one, group, and all Telegram’s other permutations—are still encrypted but done in such a way that Telegram holds the keys. That means the company could, potentially, read your messages, or be compelled to hand over those keys by law enforcement. Telegram says it won’t do this, and the company’s independent streak backs that up. However, I prefer encryption systems that simply do not allow for those possibilities.
One more note about Telegram’s encryption. Telegram company uses its own, custom encryption system. With encryption, it’s considered foolhardy and perhaps dangerous to “roll your own” instead of building on trusted standards. Although Telegram’s system has been positively evaluated, it remains controversial(Opens in a new window).
There are other methods law enforcement has for going after your messages, and a recently revealed FBI document(Opens in a new window) explains exactly how well Signal, Telegram, WhatsApp, and others stand up to these methods. The feds say that they can’t get the contents of messages from Signal and Telegram, which is great. Law enforcement can obtain a surprising amount of information on WhatsApp users, and if those users are backing up WhatsApp to iCloud, the feds can simply grab your unencrypted messages. This is a known issue, and WhatsApp suggests deactivating iCloud backup(Opens in a new window) for WhatsApp.
Setting up encrypted backups for WhatsApp is important, but the company recommends disabling iCloud backups on iOS and iPadOS. (Screenshot from PCMag)
Signal is the big winner here. Its encryption system is designed so that not even Signal can read your messages, and it uses well accepted technology to do it. WhatsApp and Telegram both have different, but equally complicated problems in this category. If message security is your biggest concern, you can just stop reading right now.
Which Messenger Protects Your Privacy?
“Hold on just a second, you dashingly handsome rogue,” I hear you cry. “You already talked about securityisn’t privacy the same thing?” That’s a good question. While these two terms are related, they are different things. The way I use the terms, privacy has to do with information that can be used to track or identify you, While security is the vulnerability of you or your data to attack or theft. There’s lots of things out there that erode your privacy without necessarily affecting your security.
The same FBI document I mentioned above covers some privacy information. The document notes that Telegram might hand over IP address information and phone numbers for confirmed terrorists. Signal has no such information to offer. The FBI can apparently obtain some information on address book contacts with a court order and can use a pen register(Opens in a new window) to obtain source and destination data (but not message contents) for messages every 15 minutes.
All three of these services require a phone number to use them, and all will ask for access to your contacts list in order to find your existing friends. None of them are suitable for anonymous chatting. Signal is the most usable while sharing the least information, while WhatsApp’s constant nagging for your contact list can render it unusable. Telegram is less pushy, but how it secures your contact list information is unclear. Both Signal and WhatsApp hash your contact list information, so they never hold the actual phone numbers of your friends.
The feds aren’t the only ones after your personal information. Harvesting and selling data is big business. This isn’t an issue for Signal, which is a free app run by a registered nonprofit. Telegram is a for-profit operation, but hasn’t yet settled on a business model.
Privacy is probably WhatsApp’s biggest problem. The app was purchased by Facebook before it became Meta and hoped we would forget about all those scandals (we didn’t). To its credit, WhatsApp is very up front about its relationship to Meta, and goes into great detail about what data it shares(Opens in a new window) with its parent company. The gist is that your messages (except those to businesses) are sacrosanct, but some identifying information—including IP addresses—may be shared.
All three of these services could do a better job explaining what information they gather, how long it’s held, and who can access it. Signal is the winner herebecause of its nonprofit status and its pledge to never sell, rent, or lease customer data.
Which Messaging App Is the Easiest to Use?
If you’ve been quietly waiting to see Signal eat dirt, this is your moment. While all three of these services are fairly easy to set up and use, there’s some quirks to Signal that hold it back here.
To its credit, Signal has seen major improvements in the last few years. It looks and feels so much more accessible, and now offers many of the same features as the competition—particularly when it comes to managing group messages and fun features like stickers. But it’s still just not as effective a tool for communicating with large groups or managing communities. Signal is also the only app I’ve used where my messages sometimes aren’t received or don’t trigger alerts—this is rare and, granted, completed anecdotal.
Signal has greatly expanded its fun features in recent updates, but still lags behind the competition. (Screenshot: PCMag)
Telegram does slightly better in this category. This service has grown enormously over the years and it’s hard to keep up with everything it can do. For simple chats and groups, however, it does just fine. It doesn’t hurt that it looks great, too.
WhatsApp is the winner here. Its super simple interface is starting to look a little dated, but WhatsApp’s secret weapon has always been its enormous user base. Everyone you ever wanted to talk to is on WhatsApp (along with everyone you hoped you’d never see again). With other apps, it’s often a struggle to find people who already use it, or convince other people to join. That’s just not a problem with WhatsApp.
Which Messenger Is the Most Social?
Messaging apps need to do more than just let you talk to one person at a time. Social features are essential, and just having group chats doesn’t cut the mustard anymore.
Signal is probably the furthest behind here. I’ve done a fair amount of labor organizing in the last five years and I can say that Signal is an essential tool for any grassroots organization. The assurances of security and privacy cannot be beat. However, it did not fare as well when it came to communicating with large groups or managing communities. Signal has shown it’s capable of growing and adapting new features to a strict privacy model, however.
Recommended by Our Editors
Telegram has numerous social features, like public blog-style posting. It has also expanded into live streaming with new video features. (Screnshot: PCMag)
WhatsApp has a big advantage here because of its sheer size. Building groups is easy on WhatsApp, but its Group Chats aren’t as powerful or useful for community building. A set of forthcoming features(Opens in a new window) might help, but we’ll have to see. Its Status feature feels like an also-ran to Instagram’s reels, and while its Broadcasts feature is extremely useful it’s still just a BCC. Meta, meanwhile, is looking to consolidate its messaging platforms, putting a question mark on future social innovation with WhatsApp.
Telegram, meanwhile, has transcended being a mere messaging service. The company iterated on its group messaging system creating a system that supports communities and even blog-style posts. Its more recent forays into livestreaming suggest an ambitious expansion. Telegram is hands-down the best platform for social messaging.
Success has a cost, though. Both WhatsApp and Telegram have seen misinformation spread widely through their respective networks. Telegram has notably been at the center of many social movements, especially internationally, and its influence cannot be understated. That company in particular needs to do a better job with moderating content and behavior on its platform(Opens in a new window).
Which Messaging App Has the Best Voice and Video Calling?
For voice and video calls, it’s a three-way tie. Each service makes these tools easy to find and use. However, it’s hard to say which is more reliable since it depends heavily on network conditions and individual hardware.
There are some important differences. Signal and WhatsApp extend their end-to-end encryption to voice and video calls, while Telegram has the same encryption caveats as its group messaging.
Signal has greatly improved the performance of its video calling across all platforms. iOS, macOS, and Android are shown here. (Screenshot: PCMag)
Each service supports 30-40 participants—more than enough for a family or small group. Telegram, however, has moved into streaming and mass communicating that can support 1,000 viewers (but only 30 active participants). If you’re looking to build a following, Telegram is probably your best bet. That said, established social media and streaming platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Twitch, Twitter, and YouTube are probably better for established or aspiring influencers.
None of these services, however, can replace Zoom, Google Meet, or other products for large-scale ad-hoc video calls. For that, you’ll need video conferencing software.
Signal Reigns Supreme
All three of these services assure their users that you can rely on them for safe, secure messaging, but really only one of them can fully deliver on that promise. Editors’ Choice winner Signal uses tried-and-tested technology to protect your messages from spies, law enforcement, and even Signal itself. Its nonprofit status removes any incentive for the company to harvest and sell user data, protecting your privacy. It also compares favorably with the competition in terms of features and ease of use. It’s one one of the vanishingly rare security-first products that has turned the corner into mass acceptance.
The biggest drawback for Signal is that it’s just not as popular or as fun as its competitors. Some of that we can change—the more people take a chance with it, the easier it will be to find and engage with your friends and family. It’s up to Signal to make its service more fun, however.