If privacy is your top priority, then Signal is one of the best options out there. An app that has been advertised by people like Edward Snowden (privacy advocate and former CIA employee), Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, journalists, and cybersecurity experts across the globe, Signal should be at the top of your list if you’re planning to leave WhatsApp for a more secure option. Here’s an interesting fact – even WhatsApp’s encryption has Signal Protocol as the underlying technology.
Signal is free, and more importantly, it is open source. What this means is anyone, especially security experts, can look into its codebase for vulnerabilities and security flaws, ensuring that there are no hidden backdoors or leaks. All your information and communication data are encrypted, even the stickers you share. Aside from text-based messages, you can make voice and video calls too, and communicate via group chats too. A few privacy-focused add-ons include screenshot-blocking and self-destructing messages.
Signal promises that there are no ads, affiliate marketing parties, or any form of user tracking. Another assurance is that Signal is an independent non-profit and is not owned by another major tech company – unlike the WhatsApp and Facebook bond – and is therefore unlikely to budge under pressure and change its commitment towards privacy.
The service recently made it easier to migrate your data to another device (both iOS and Android) and has been adding some new features to make the switch from WhatsApp more palatable. And oh, it uses a strict PIN system for signing in. It is even testing peer-to-peer payments service involving cryptocurrencies. Another huge advantage is that you can use it across Android, iOS, Windows, macOS, and Linux ecosystems.
If you’re still holding tightly to your WhatsApp account because the rivals might not have those features, Telegram is your answer. Telegram is free, just like WhatsApp, but offers a lot more features. For example, you can create group conversations (or channels) with up to 200,000 participants and send files of up to 2GB without a fuss. And if you’re worried about expressing yourself, there are a ton of awesome animated stickers (and even the ability to create custom ones) that I absolutely love.
Now, let’s talk about privacy. Just like Signal, Telegram is also open source, which means anyone can independently verify the code for any security flaws. But there’s a small caveat here. Only ‘secret chats’ are end-to-end encrypted and they have to be enabled manually, but the regular chats are not. However, it allows you to hide your phone number by assigning you a t.me/xyz username. So, even if you’re chatting with another person, they won’t know your phone number if you haven’t allowed it from the privacy settings.
Aside from the usual chat feature, you can conduct group voice calls (even in a live voice channel, somewhat like Clubhouse), schedule messages and even voice chats, video calls (group video calls are coming soon too), the ability to use multiple accounts (different phone numbers) in the same app (both mobile and desktop) and web client too, proximity alerts, and a lot more. Plus, you can also edit messages and even media files after sending them.
Telegram also allows you to create separate chat folders, and they really come in handy if you want to keep your personal and work conversations separate. Then there are Telegram bots, that can do anything from sending weather information or useful news articles, schedule reminders, play music, create to-do lists, among other tasks. Telegram recently added a new feature that allows you to move your data from WhatsApp with ease. All your communications are synced across all devices and platforms (iOS, Android, macOS, Windows, and Linux), which is something I absolutely love.
If you’re going all-in on the privacy aspect, Keybase is where you should look at. The app supports end-to-end encryption for all your conversations and even encrypts the files you share. Additionally, it allows you to communicate with other people without revealing your phone number or email address. Plus, multi-device support allows all your data to be transferred and synced with a layer of encryption on top.
Keybase is open-source, and just like Telegram and Signal, anyone can take a look into the code at any given time to assess the security measures and check for any security flaws. Keybase says that it uses public-key cryptography for privacy. Additionally, it allows you to connect and communicate with people using their social media aliases from platforms such as Twitter and Reddit. Oh, and did I tell you about self-destructing messages? Keybase calls them ‘Exploding’ messages.
The service also lets you link a Stellar account – the open-source decentralized protocol for sending money and engage in cryptocurrency trading too. Keybase actually supports syncing Stellar keys as well, aside from the ability to export a private key. You can also import an existing mailing list on Keybase and also invite anyone from your contacts. The app also has a group (or teams) feature as well. Keybase is available on Android, iOS, macOS, Windows, and even has a native Linux client too.
Another app that takes privacy a tad too seriously is Threema. Let’s start with the basic features first. Threema is an open-source platform that supports end-to-end encryption for messages, as well as voice and video calls. Even your status updates are protected behind a wall of encryption. The company behind that app claims that all data is stored on your device, and none of it is stored on remote servers. All local files shared via Threema are encrypted on-device, and there is support for self-destructing messages too.
Threema has a well-optimized tablet interface, and the web app also works well without cutting down on any features available in the mobile app. There is an interesting agree/disagree feature that allows you to respond to a message without triggering a push notification on the recipient’s device. Private chats are protected behind a layer of PIN/password, and incoming messages for such conversations do not show the message preview. It also allows you to create polls, something not many messaging apps offer.
Threema also lets you create an anonymous, encrypted backup of your contacts, groups, settings, and selected data that you can also transfer to another device when switching platforms. You can add formatting (bold, italic, strikethrough) to your text messages, and even pin a chat. More importantly, Threema does not rely on a phone number. Instead, it generates a unique 8-digit ID for each user, allowing you to use the service without sharing any identifiable information.
The service relies on a key system – actually two keys – the public key is stored on servers, while the private key is exclusive to the storage of your device. All messages sent to you can only be decrypted with this private key on your device. There is also a QR Code scanning feature in place that allows you to add a contact with Level 3 verification, ensuring that you’re not targeted by a man-in-the-middle attack.
Discord is no longer a platform that is only targeted at gamers. In fact, I’ve even used it as the primary workspace communication platform in the past. Starting with the communication aspect, you can share text messages, GIFs, emotes, and even documents, in addition to conducting voice and video calls. What I really like about Discord is the integration with services such as Spotify, Twitch, YouTube, Steam, Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter to name a few. The topic-based channels are a great way to explore content that will suit your interests.
A cool aspect is the server-based system of Discord, which takes an invite-only approach for chatting with friends and interacting with community members. Screen-sharing is another cool feature that makes Discord useful for both sharing your game achievements and work progress. Additionally, you can assign Roles, create moderators, and even create working groups that act as channels for broadcasting a message.
Unlike WhatsApp though, you’re not required to share your phone number and can go with any random username to protect your identity. It is available as both mobile and desktop apps, and there’s a web-based client too with all the core functionalities intact. And if you jump to the paid Discord Nitro tier, you get a ton of extras such as the ability to create animated avatars, make custom, a higher file-size limit for sharing content, and the ability to stream in 4K resolution as well.
And with that, we conclude our best WhatsApp alternatives for 2021 guide. While saying goodbye to WhatsApp is not too big of trouble technically, it can limit your scope of communication with those who rely on it for a majority of their communications. Pocketnow’s Editor-in-Chief Anton D. Nagy found it the hard way as he went ahead and deleted his WhatsApp account (and from all other Facebook-owned platforms too), as not many people necessarily use the same alternative communication platform as him (me or you). My colleague Adam Z. Lein argues that even these alternative platforms are not as secure as they look right now, and if history is any indication, you should stop being naive when pledging your loyalty to any of these communication platforms.