The last few years have really shook the social media industry with some high profile revelations about how the giants of the Silicon Valley use and abuse our data, often without our permission or consent. As such, the industry has seen a rise in awareness among the end users when it comes to privacy focused apps in niches like browsers and messengers. Two messaging apps that have seen a lot of traction are Telegram and Signal.
We will take a look at how secure these two apps are and how they handle user data and privacy. I have been using Telegram myself for some time now since it is the go-to platform for blockchain companies and enthusiast, but Signal is somewhat new to me.
Let’s see how these two compare and what each has to offer to its users.
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1. User Interface
Both Telegram and Signal have a clean interface with a traditional hamburger menu. Unfortunately, none of the apps feature a bottom navigation bar which is primitive in nature and makes it harder to reach the top corners. If you are using Telegram X instead of Telegram, you will notice certain changes in the UI like a separate tab for Chats and Calls next to the menu icon.
There is only one tab in Signal and you are not shown a list of all your contacts by default. You search for them and open the chat window to either send a text or make a call (audio or video). Signal’s UI is more akin to WhatsApp.
Both the messenger apps come with dark mode but Telegram has other color options too.
2. Privacy and Security
This is the main selling point of both Telegram and Signal. This is why most people use them in the first place, but exactly how secure are they, and how private your conversations are? The Telegram team, two Russian brothers, are so confident of their MTProto encryption technology that they announced a $200,000 followed by a $300,000 contest to break in to Telegram. No one won. All messages and calls in Telegram are end-to-end encrypted however their decision to not use the existing Signal protocol drew some flak, forcing them to release a statement explaining the difference between the two. All Telegram apps are open sourced and the company itself is not for profit, however, their backend is not open source which has raised some eyebrows.
Signal uses the Open Whisper System which comes recommended by none other than Bruce Schneier and Edward Snowden, one of the most well-known whistle blower of the decade. Like Telegram, all messages and calls are end-to-end encrypted using the Whisper Protocol which is open source.
In Telegram, you can delete any message that you have sent or received within 48 hours. In case of media files like pics, audio or video, you can set a timer at the time of sending the media file. Options begin from 5 seconds to 1 minute.
In Signal, you can send Disappearing messages. You can choose a time, say 1 minute, and the message will be auto-deleted after the time has elapsed. This is true for not just media files but also text messages which is nice. Timing begins from 5 seconds and goes up to 1 week.
In Telegram, instead of sending disappearing messages, there is an option called Secret Chat. Here is the kicker. This is where you can send self-destructing messages in all forms, it is end-to-end encrypted, and Telegram does not allow forwarding messages. OK, so what about regular messages? Turns out they are not encrypted after all. Where Signal implements the security and privacy protocols right from the start, Telegram separates the two and offers an additional option. The problem is that not everyone is aware of the Secret Chat option and first-time users may send sensitive information in the regular chat window unknowingly.
Another issue is that the Secret Chat option is not immediately made available. You have to open the chat window, go to the individual’s profile and select it from the menu. Why make it so hard? With Signal, I don’t have to think twice before sending any type of message.
Every time one of my contacts joins Telegram, I am notified of the same. How does Telegram know he/she is my friend? Because they access and store your contacts list. Simple but not private. Signal never stores any data on your contacts which is pretty cool, and private.
Both Signal and Telegram don’t allow taking screenshots or forwarding messages. Telegram has 2FA in place to further protect your account whereas Signal misses out on this feature.
On the flip side, a Reddit user discovered that images and videos sent in the self-destructing mode in Telegram were still being saved on his mobile’s SD card. If you are unsure, you can test it by opening the Android > Data > org.telegram.messenger folder and also check your Gallery app. Also, the end-to-end encryption only works in one-on-one chats and not group chats.
Both the apps take security and privacy very seriously however differ when it comes to the technology deployed and methods used. The general consensus is that the Signal protocol is more secure and the fact that there is no need to create a secret chat window separately in Signal app does win brownie points from me.
3. Verification Method
This is where Signal leaves every other messenger app behind on the planet right now. When you call someone on Signal, the app immediately generates a random series of numbers called Safety Number. The same set of numbers is also generated on the recipients phone. Both the parties can now verify this number to know that the profile is verified and genuine. It’s easy to create fake accounts and SIM frauds are nothing new. You can also verify each other’s profile by scanning QR codes that contain this unique set of numbers and mark the profile as verified. This way, you know the profile is genuine and not a dummy.
What about people who live across the ocean and with whom you cannot meet personally? When you make a call using Signal, it will generate a two-word secret code on both the profiles. You will speak the first word and the recipient will check it. Then he will speak the second word and you can check it on your end. If both the words match, the call has not been intercepted and connected to the correct profile, if the words don’t match, hang up immediately and try again. Pretty cool, huh?
Also Read: Top Google Chrome Extensions for Privacy
You can use Signal as your default text/SMS message app replacing the one that shipped with your mobile. This is really cool and makes your life that much secure. However, if Signal is more secure, Telegram is the more feature-rich of the two.
Another reason to choose Telegram over Signal is group chat. There are many developers and YouTubers who use Telegram for mass group chat. You can create massive Channels (groups) with up to 200,000 members which is unheard of in any messenger app. You can attach files of up to 1.5GB which is again generous. At present, it is unclear how many members you can add in a group in Signal and file size that can be attached.
Telegram supports bots that can be used to welcome new members, announce rules of the group, auto-delete posts that contain particular words, and many more. This makes life easier for admins and precisely why the app is so popular with blockchain and crypto enthusiasts as well as private companies who like to keep their followers updated with news. You can assign roles to different members like subscriber, moderator, admin and so on. Helps when group size is humongous. Unlike Signal, Telegram allows sharing your current location, if you want.
Signal doesn’t support bots, file size is capped, there is no API, and you cannot assign roles to group members. Signal was built to be a privacy-first app and it does it well.
Pricing and Platform
Both Telegram and Signal are absolutely free with no ads or endorsements and are available on all major computer and mobile operating systems.
Telegram vs. Signal: Closing words
Here is the verdict and I think it is pretty clear. For most people, Telegram is a solid app with a lot of features to keep you happy. While chats are not encrypted by default, you can always enable it if need be. It is pretty secure and comes with too many features to be ignored.
However, if you need a private and secure messaging app as if your life depended on it, then you are better off with Signal. Working for secret organizations or think you are a big shot businessman? Get Signal and achieve instant peace of mind, at the cost of advanced features.
I keep both and I have my reasons. Maybe you should too.