In search of “the” messaging app – Manila Bulletin

Recent events (although more than a decade in the making) show the importance of protecting your privacy when using online services, especially messaging apps.

Of course, you know the popular ones: SMS, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, iMessage, whatever Google is promoting as a messaging app right now, Telegram, Signal, and in some regions, Line and Viber. Each has its own disadvantages: being a unique platform (iMessage), belonging to surveillance companies (Meta, Google), having unverified encryption protocols, etc.

The search for the Cross-platform messaging app that is secure and protects your ongoing privacy. Personally, I’m content to use iMessage for the majority of my family.

So what do I use for cross-platform messaging? At the moment, I’m using Signal. Signal meets most security and privacy requirements, and is not owned by any company that collects data (metadata) for profit.

However, Signal fails in one (1) major area and one (1) minor area, at least for me. The first is a major fail – Signal requires your cell phone number, which is at the top of the Personally Identifiable Information (PII) list. Mobile numbers are not so easy to replace, unlike emails. Signal demands it, and although they announced that they will be replacing it soon, it is still vaporware at this stage, with no target date in sight.

Signal’s second issue, although minor, is that it’s an American company, which currently doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to protecting the privacy of even its citizens, what more for those who are not protected by their laws.

Messages are protected by encryption, of course, but like email, the sender’s and recipient’s cell phone numbers are public (perhaps hashed, but still available) and can be shared with the US government. Using Signal is akin to using SMS – you just need to know the person’s cell phone number to start a conversation, or spam them, which is handy.

User onboarding is very simple, download the app, create an account and log in using your mobile number, and that’s about it. You can start sending messages. In most cases, those in your address book and with Signal accounts will be alerted that you have joined Signal.

I wish Signal would stop doing this. So far, all the other messaging apps I listed above fall short of what you need for a safe and secure messaging app. So the search continues.

Right now I have two (2) candidates – Session and Threema.

Both solve the major problem of Signal, Session and Threema don’t need your mobile number – it uses an ID that doesn’t directly identify users. However, Session uses a rather long alphanumeric identifier, which can cause problems when sharing with others.

As for my minor issue with Signal, Session is based in Australia which is a friend of the US (so probably has the same issue with Signal being based in the US). However, Session uses a TOR-like network, which is made up of different servers that route your encrypted messages, instead of a central server like Signal – Session is better, right?

As for Threema, well, they’re based in Switzerland, a country that has much better privacy than most. In addition, Threema uses its own servers, i.e. they do not depend on Amazon, Google and other cloud companies.

Session and Threema look like perfect candidates as a messaging app. My problem with Session is that the ID is too long and not easy to share with others – in a way that’s good because it’s hard to match it to a specific user, but the user experience in suffers. A balance must be made, but not without entering a cryptocurrency game that Session requires to have a unique username that matches the long ID.

My issue with Threema is the unique $5 barrier to entry. It is understandable that this is a paid service, as opposed to extracting your metadata and selling it or using it for targeted advertising under the guise of free to maintain their services.

This, IMHO, is what keeps it from becoming popular, but maybe that’s by design. Should I settle for Session and get bogged down in the long session id or should I bite the bullet and pay for Threema or wait for Signal to drop the mobile number requirement (to know when this happens no one known) ?

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About Sandra A. Powell

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