WhatsApp, in case you’ve been enjoying some winter hibernation, has been accused recently of dialling back user privacy at the behest of its owner Facebook. One of the companies that has done well from this mistrust is Telegram, which now boasts well over 500 million worldwide users. The problem is, those using it instead of WhatsApp might be making their chats less secret.
This is especially true of people who export their WhatsApp conversations and move them to Telegram. If you decide to do that, be aware that you’ll be removing WhatsApp encryption (which prevents people reading your messages) and moving them to Telegram where they won’t be encrypted at all.
That’s because, while Telegram does offer encrypted end-to-end chats, it is not the default. You need to start “secret chats” in order to actually use this important security feature. Rivals Signal and WhatsApp, by comparison, encrypt all conversations by default.
Indeed, the argument over WhatsApp has never been about message security, which is very well designed. It’s more about the additional data that Facebook wants to collect on users. That might include who you are talking with and how much, but it might also be more about pairing your WhatsApp account to data you have given to Facebook. For example, allowing the company access to every contact in your address book and pairing them with Facebook users - potentially even if you aren’t connected on that social network.
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The main problem is that Facebook doesn’t make clear what it does and does not do. So while it denies some aspects of this approach, user confidence has been shaken by a total lack of clarity about it. It would be fantastic if the company could honestly explain this situation in a way that normal people can understand, not all of us work in cyber yet, in spite of the government’s attempt to lure ballerinas and coal miners into the industry.
How much importance you place in encryption will depend on how you feel about companies being able to read your messages. For some, this will simply not matter. There are plenty of people who say “I have nothing to hide” and while that’s fine, it isn’t really the point. You have the right to privacy in your conversations and we believe you should make use of it no matter what.
In short then: Telegram doesn't automatically encrypt chats, but Signal and even WhatsApp both do. Be aware of this if you're sharing things you don't want staff at Telegram being able to access.
If you are fleeing WhatsApp for another service, you might want to use Signal which is pretty much the best alternative. And while not perfect, it checks all of the boxes that Telegram doesn’t and isn’t owned by Facebook.