3 free alternatives to Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp that take privacy seriously.
Matters of data privacy and consent to the use of personal information on messaging and social media platforms have been very much in the news, lately, following the involvement of Facebook in the scandal with Cambridge Analytica.
During that affair, initial reports suggested personal information from around 50 million Americans and at least one million UK users was harvested through various channels from Facebook, and then shared illicitly with US-based data management firm Cambridge Analytica. The final tally of victims has since been confirmed at over 87 million usersworldwide.
Data gathered from Facebook via a personality app developed by Cambridge University researcher Aleksandr Kogan drew information about Facebook users and their friends including their activities, locations, check-ins, photographs, likes, politics, religion, and relationship status.
Whistle-blower Christopher Wylie disclosed that much of this information was then used by Cambridge Analytica to influence the campaign and outcomes of both the US presidential election and the UK’s Brexit vote. This occurred because the harvested data was fed into software which generated personalised political advertising based on its findings.
Fallout from the Cambridge Analytica Scandal
Once the scandal came to light, the repercussions were swift and decisive. Negative media coverage and public outcry left the data firm at the centre of the shenanigans with zero clients and escalating legal fees. The New York offices of Cambridge Analytica have been entirely vacated, and the company has started insolvency proceedings and is shutting down. SCL Elections Ltd, a UK business entity affiliated to Cambridge Analytica, has suffered the same fate.
But old business campaigners never die – they just move on to their next registered company. And by May 2018, the team behind Cambridge Analytica (including its much vilified CEO, Alexander Nix) had already established a mysterious new venture called Emerdata. Meanwhile, Cambridge Analytica’s former head of product and former chief data scientist are currently involved in a new company called Data Propria. You have been warned.
As for Facebook, the host medium for the inappropriate goings-on, life also continues. There’s been some backlash from its user base, and a slight dwindling in numbers in response to a global campaign to #DeleteFacebook. But Mark Zuckerberg’s world-beating social media platform is still going strong, issuing some slight changes to its privacy and data-handling policies in response to the Cambridge Analytica affair and the demands of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). And that’s about it.
Yet, these events have awakened a greater public consciousness of how personal and corporate data is being collected, distributed, and used online.
How Messaging Came into the Equation
Facebook’s “Graph API” is the Application Programming Interface (API) through which third parties can interact with the social media platform. These “third parties” may be applications, external contractors, and online resources. And it was by using the Graph API that Cambridge Analytica was able to gain access to so much viable user data to conduct its targeting campaigns.
A similar mechanism applies to the trading of information between Facebook and an affiliated messaging platform like WhatsApp – which Facebook now owns, of course. And if you consider the kind of information routinely traded between users of a messaging platform (exchanging documents, payment details, information about sensitive processes and products, times, locations, etc.), you’ll understand the need to know that your private or corporate data isn’t being leaked out to third parties for them to use or abuse, as they see fit.
Alternative Messaging Platforms
So, in a post-Cambridge Analytica world, users require an alternative to the Facebook/faceless social media giant option for their secure messaging needs. Here are three messaging platforms that fit the bill – an independent platform that describes itself as “seriously secure messaging”, and two of which you can download for free, from FileHippo.
Based on the MTProto protocol, Telegram uses a decentralised infrastructure with globally distributed data centres as the basis for its messaging platform, which focuses on speed. Individual groups of up to 100,000 members may be accommodated. Group chats may be formed with up to 200 members, and video files up to a limit of 1GB can be shared. It’s also possible to send multiple photographs from the web, and to instantly forward any media files that you receive.
Telegram offers unlimited free cloud storage for all Telegram messages and media, with secure access from multiple devices. The platform has security measures and encryption tools in place to keep messages safe from hackers and eavesdroppers. Most importantly for our discussion, the service promises to never give third parties access to your data.
Telegram is free, with no ads or subscription fees. It comes in a range of variants for the web, PC, Mac, and Linux. And you can find the Telegram free download at FileHippo.
Described as “a 100% independent and self-financed company in the heart of Switzerland with its own servers and in-house software development”, the Threema messaging platform meets the demands of Switzerland’s stringent data privacy laws, and is fully compliant with the new EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Threema adopts a two-pronged approach to prevent the collection of meta data (data about data) from its platform. First, groups and contact lists are entirely managed on each user’s device. Second, messages are immediately deleted after they’ve been delivered.
All communications, including messages, voice calls, group chats, files, and status messages receive end-to-end encryption, so that only the intended recipient can read or make sense of them. Threema’s application developers and owners claim that “even we as the server operator have absolutely no way to read your messages.”
Anonymity is central to the Threema messaging platform. Users don’t need to specify a phone number or email address in order to join. And each Threema user has a random Threema ID generated for them, when they use the service.
Eavesdropping or “man-in-the-middle” attacks (when the connection between two communicating parties is hijacked by hackers, who can listen in or insert their own data) are prevented by the use of QR codes. Each of your contacts on the Threema messaging platform is associated with a unique QR code, which you can scan each time you connect to them.
An alternative to Skype, the Viber messaging platform is distributed as client software for PC and Mac, or as mobile apps (Android, iPhone, Blackberry, Windows Phone, and Symbian). Globally, Viber competes directly with WhatsApp for the title of the most popular cross platform/cross device messaging service.
With Viber, you can securely make voice calls, chat, send SMS text messages, pictures or videos for free to any of your phone contacts who also have the app installed. Video conferencing capabilities can extend to 100 of your contacts, simultaneously. End-to-end encryption may be applied to all calls, messages, or shared media. And with multiple device support, messages saved to multiple devices may also be encrypted.
You can download Viber for free at FileHippo.