Signal vs WhatsApp vs Telegram: Privacy, Permissions, Data Collection, and More

Unless you lived in a cave this past week, you might now have come across privacy concerns regarding WhatsApp and the increasing number of people flooding Telegram and Signal for future use. WhatsApp is renewing its Privacy Policy that clearly states that it will be sharing user data with Facebook and if you fail to agree to its new terms of service before February 8, 2021, you will no longer be able to use the popular messaging app.

With the heat that WhatsApp is facing at the moment, its popular alternatives Signal and Telegram are making the most out of this situation. If you’re worried about what happens to your data on WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram and which one is the best in terms privacy for your communication purposes, the following post should be of some help.    

Signal vs WhatsApp vs Telegram: A brief history

Before we move on it its privacy features and the kind of data they all collect from you, it’s important to know what Signal, WhatsApp, and Telegram are and their origin stories. 

WhatsApp is the largest cross-platform messaging app that currently has over 2 billion users worldwide and is also the primary means of communication in multiple countries across Europe, the Indian subcontinent, Latin America, and Africa. The app was developed in 2009 and is available on iOS and Android with web app clients for Windows and macOS. The app allows users to send and receive text, audio, and video messages, documents, and other files individually and in groups. You can make voice and video calls and also share your location with others in real-time.

While not old as WhatsApp, Telegram is another popular chat messaging app that has over 400 million monthly active users, having originated in 2013. The app is pretty similar to of WhatsApp offering its users audio, video, and text messaging, voice and video calls, large-size file sharing, real-time location sharing, and more. In many ways, Telegram is the mirrored alternative to WhatsApp but with added features like group messaging support of up to 200,000 members, unlimited subscribers in channels, self-destructing messages, and more. It’s available as an app for Android, iOS, Windows, macOS, and Linux.

Of the three chat messaging apps listed here, Signal is relatively the newest, having come into existence in 2018 after the Signal Foundation was formed. It is also the only open-source app on this list, meaning it is funded by grants and donations and is open for peer-reviewing. Signal can be installed across a bunch of devices running iOS, Android, Windows, macOS, and Linux. Being the newer one of the three, Signal offers limited sets of features but covers the basics like video, audio, and text messages, voice and video calls, read receipts and typing indicators, and more.

Signal vs WhatsApp vs Telegram: Who owns them?

Let’s start with the newest of the bunch – Signal. Signal was developed by the Signal Foundation, a nonprofit organization that’s spearheaded by Moxie Marlinspike and WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton. The company runs solely on grants and generous donations notably by Acton himself ($50 million in 2017), and Elon Musk (in 2019 or 2020). You can read more about how Signal makes money here.  

WhatsApp was launched in 2009 by former employees of Yahoo! – Jan Koum, and Brian Acton (who later went on to be the co-founder of Signal). The company was later acquired by Facebook who continues to manage and control all the proceedings on the chatting app. In addition to Facebook’s bad history with how it deals with user data, WhatsApp has since been a target of multiple allegations surrounding encryption and backdoors. 

Telegram was launched in 2013 by brothers Nikolai Durov and Pavel Durov. The two were also behind the formation of the Russian social network, VK (which got acquired by the Mail.ru Group). Although Telegram isn’t open-sourced like Signal, Pavel Durov is known to be an advocate for privacy in the past. Pavel was earlier dismissed as CEO of VK for refusing to hand over user data to the Russian government and occasionally speaking out against censorship. 

Signal vs WhatsApp vs Telegram: Which of these collect the most data?

We understand that when it comes to reading the terms of usage and privacy policy of any service, it’s hard to understand what information you’re giving away and what’s safe with you. Thanks to Apple, the App Store shows you an ‘App Privacy‘ section for all apps available for download. Let’s see which app uses what data:

Type of data

Before we move on to see which apps collect which type of data, it’s important for you to understand how each data type is used by the app developer as well as their third-party partners and what exactly is their purpose. The App Store requests developers to specify data collection into six types of purposes. 

Data collection Type/Purpose What they actually do with your data
Third-Party Advertising Display third-party ads in the app and share your data with companies who display third-party ads
Developer’s Advertising or Marketing Shows first-party ads in the app, sends marketing communications directly to the users, share their data with entities who will display the app’s ads
Analytics Collects your data to learn user behavior, Estimates audience size and their characteristics
Product Personalization Custom content for individual users, such as recommendations
App Functionality Required for the functioning of the app; Needed for authentication, security measures, enabling features, prevent fraud, reduce app crashes, improve stability, allow customer support, ensure server uptime
Other Purposes If data type doesn’t fall in other categories listed above

If you have gone through the list of data types mentioned above, you might agree that an app only needs to collect data for “App Functionality” for it actually run on your phone. If this data falls under any other category, you should rethink your options and decide whether you really want to share your information with them. 

Data collected

Here’s an overview of all the data that WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram request from you:

App Name Purpose for data collection What data is collected
WhatsApp App functionality, Developer’s Advertising or Marketing, Analytics, Product Personalization, Other Purposes Identifiers, Usage Data, Purchases, Location, Contact Info, User Content, Usage Data, Diagnostics, Financial Info, Contacts
Telegram App Functionality Contact Info, Identifiers, Contacts
Signal App Functionality Contact Info

In WhatsApp’s case, you will see that the app collects data related to Purchases, Financial Info, Location, Contact Info, Contacts, User Content, Identifiers, Usage Data, and Diagnostics as part of the “App Functionality” purpose. This means that for the app to run smoothly, you’re required to share the data mentioned in this data type.

However, that’s not all WhatsApp collects. The Facebook-owned company also extracts different data types for Developer’s Advertising or Marketing, Product Personalization Analytics, and Other Purposes. It’s important to note that none of this data is necessary for WhatsApp to run but the service collects them for its own requirement.

In contrast, Telegram only collects your Contact Info, name of Contacts, and User ID for “App Functionality” purposes. Unlike on WhatsApp, none of your data is used for anything other than the app’s functionality.

Things are even more secure on Signal as the app only requests access to your Phone Number which is required to let you sign up on the service and to get you a unique user ID.

Judging by the number of different information that WhatsApp collects from you for things other than “App Functionality” is unsettling, to begin with. Now that it wants to share all this with Facebook, it doesn’t seem like the right move to continue using WhatsApp. Both Signal and Telegram appear to be the better choice as they collect a near-to-negligible amount of data from you. 

What data is linked to you?

In addition to the kind of data that gets collected, the App Store also reveals another significant privacy detail for all the apps available on its storefront. Most apps that collect your data also establish a link to the user’s identity which makes them easier to send you targeted ads and personalized suggestions and that’s the best-case scenario. 

WhatsApp as you would expect not only collects a wide range of information but links each and every single piece into a space that’s unique to you. The words “data” and “Facebook” put together has always been a subject of red flag and with the recent changes to its Privacy Policy which clearly states that WhatsApp will be sharing user data with Facebook, would you be willing to let the data that’s collected by WhatsApp get linked back to you?

Data linked to you on WhatsApp

While the App Store also reveals that Telegram also links the data to your identity, the kind of data you share with the service is negligible compared to what you share with WhatsApp.

Data linked to you on Telegram

Of the three apps, however, Signal is the one that stands out as the app doesn’t even link the data it collects (your phone number) to your identity.

Data linked to you on Signal

Signal vs WhatsApp vs Telegram: Which app offers the best encryption technology?

Messages on Signal are encrypted with the Signal Protocol which was originally called the TextSecure Protocol when it was released in 2013 and has been used on other messaging services including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Skype, and Google Allo.

The Signal Protocol can be used to provide end-to-end encryption for voice and video calls, and text messages with individuals and groups. This means that all communications between Signal users are end-to-end encrypted automatically without the need for it to be activated. The encryption involves the generation of keys that are stored at the endpoints to compare and verify whether someone is the person they claim to be.

In case you didn’t know, WhatsApp also relies on the same encryption protocol that’s used in Signal. The Facebook-owned company has incorporated the protocol in 2014 for its Android app but full encryption was only finished in 2016. Similar to that of Signal, everything on WhatsApp is end-to-end protected, meaning only the senders and receivers of the messages can read them and there are lesser chances of eavesdroppers from accessing your conversation. 

Although Telegram provides end-to-end encrypted voice and video calls and file sharing, not all text messages are protected with end-to-end encryption. This is because Telegram’s default messages are cloud-based which makes sure that messages, photos, videos, audio messages, and other files shared with a person can be accessed on any of the user’s devices that use Telegram on.

Telegram’s privacy policy states that “all data is stored heavily encrypted and the encryption keys in each case are stored in several other data centers in different jurisdictions. This way local engineers or physical intruders cannot get access to users’ data”. 

The only form of text messages that are supported by client-to-client encryption on Telegram is Secret chats which are protected using the MTProto protocol. This type of message can only be accessed from the devices that were used at the time of initiation of the secret chat. Keys used in Secret chats are periodically changed if they’re used for over a week or for over 100 times. 

Chat backups: Where are they stored?

When you use Telegram, unless you’re using Secret Chats, you can be sure of the fact that all messages sent and received on your phone will also be available on any of the devices you use to access the service. This is possible because all messages shared on Telegram are cloud-based and also offer a 48-hour period during which time they can be edited for the purpose of retracting messages that were sent by mistake and for correcting typos. 

Signal allows users the ability to restore their complete chat history when switching from one Android phone to another or from one iOS device to another. Unlike its rivals, Signal doesn’t offer cloud backups and only allows local storage of databases encrypted with SQLCipher. 

When you send a message on WhatsApp, it is sent to WhatsApp’s servers and is stored there until the recipient receives the message. Once the message is acknowledged as received, the server drops this message from its database. However, you can save chat backups on Google Drive (for Android devices) or iCloud (for iOS devices) but you have to keep in mind that end-to-end encryption isn’t available for cloud backups. 

Free, paid, or are there ads in any of these?

At the time of writing none among WhatsApp, Signal, or Telegram show ads across any of their supported platforms. 

When WhatsApp’s recent privacy policy row started, the company confirmed that the changes were necessary to help businesses get in touch with you. In addition to that, the company spoke out during the Facebook Marketing Summit about future ads in the platform that may pop up with the advertisers’ names inside the Status tab. Although not yet live, we can expect these ads to look and behave similarly to how you see ads on Instagram; which won’t be surprising since both of them are owned and run by Facebook. 

Telegram’s founder Pavel Durov has also revealed that it will start showing ads in channels in order to generate funding and cover the expenses. Durov says that showing ads is the only way to continue serving its users since he isn’t willing to “sell the company like the founders of Whatsapp”. He also confirmed that ads won’t be intrusive to users and won’t appear in private 1-to-1 chats or group chats as he believes that “communication between people should be free of advertising of any sort”. At the same time, Durov also said that all Telegram features will still remain free forever. 

Contrary to its competitors, Signal has promised that there will never be any kind of ads on Signal because it says “your data belongs in your hands”, not theirs. The company said this just days after WhatsApp announced its latest privacy policy. 

Signal vs WhatsApp vs Telegram: Our choice for Privacy and Security

Tl;DR version: If you’re focused solely on privacy, don’t look elsewhere, go for Signal. It offers the best encryption protocol, all communication is protected with end-to-end encryption, shows no ads, collects only your phone number, doesn’t link data to you, and is run by a nonprofit organization. 

If you want more features and something in-between WhatsApp and Signal, Telegram is the one for you. It offers cloud-based messages, secret chats, collects only your contact info and contact details, is relatively older and more established than Signal (meaning more of your friends will be there with you), and is somewhat more secure than WhatsApp.

Longer version: The root of this comparison is WhatsApp’s recent backlash surrounding the way it collects data and shares it with Facebook. The popular messaging app has a serious issue and that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. As the App Store notes, WhatsApp collects a significant amount of data from you and links it back to your unique identity.

Data and Facebook have always been a red flag in the media and based on the information we have at our disposal, it’s hard to recommend it to anyone. So, you’re left with no option but to move away to another platform – Telegram or Signal. 

If privacy is what made you think about quitting WhatsApp in the first place, Signal should be the app you need to consider opting for. The app is managed by a nonprofit organization that runs solely on donations and grants and the company has promised to stay away from ads, unlike their competitors.

Promises aside, Signal only collects your phone number, and that too for registering your account and remains the only app out of the three to not link the collected data back to you. It doesn’t store chat backups on the cloud but the same thing aids in the fact that all your messages remain end-to-end encrypted. All in all, choosing Signal is a no-brainer and we’d absolutely recommend you replace WhatsApp with Signal straight away. 

But for those you who want the best of both worlds (of privacy and functionality), then you can think of switching to Telegram. It’s available for free, lets you access your chats from anywhere, and has been in existence for a longer time than Signal. 

While Telegram may not be offering the best encryption protocol, it earns a name for itself for collecting lesser data compared to that of WhatsApp and none of the data that gets collected is for purposes other than its own app functionality. Telegram’s founders have been long-time advocates for data privacy and have promised that the app would never show ads in private 1-to-1 chats or group chats.  

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Ajaay

Ambivalent, unprecedented, and on the run from everyone's idea of reality. A consonance of love for filter coffee, cold weather, Arsenal, AC/DC, and Sinatra.

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