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Cue WhatsApp Privacy Row: The Ultimate Guide to Chat/ IM And General Online Privacy In 2021
Having the user data privacy and security talk is long overdue. Now that WhatsApp has brought the spotlight back to that topic with their current piracy policy row, we are happy to be having that conversation at all.
Users were not taking it lightly with the IM giant this time at all. In a matter of hours to days alone, WhatsApp shed millions of users from all around the world. It seems that some of these users are not going back to the platform either.
Just some days ago, the WhatsApp team put up a status update to all users. That, again, raised a question of how they were able to bypass all privacy settings – where we have the likes of only seeing status updates from your chosen contacts – to display that information to the users.
Ironically, the status updates were centered around how WhatsApp is keeping privacy and security intact.
Where Users are Flocking To
It is not easy to leave the world of IMs to go back to basic texting.
Instant messaging has changed the way we communicate and interact forever. Instead of sending bits of messages through owls (we know, that a little extreme), you can now communicate faster with people without having to call them.
Even in the days of the telegram (the service, not the modern chat application), things were not this cost-effective. The service might have been secure but paying per word sent (even spaces) drove up the cost of messages in those days too.
Now that users are leaving WhatsApp – maybe for the moment or good – we know that they are going somewhere.
Now we are referring to the chat application, not the service.
The UK-based company has been here for a long time now, and they have kept to their promise of keeping user privacy and data security at the top of their priorities. Telegram has always been easy to use even if you were coming into the fold for the first time.
Perhaps because the company now knows that many users are flocking from WhatsApp to them, they just launched a feature that allows you to import your chat history from other apps directly into Telegram. This way, you can continue with your conversations from where you left off.
As to what makes it a good rival for WhatsApp, it offers the same text, video, and voice call functionalities. On top of that, the app also carried support for disappearing messages way before WhatsApp came on board with that. Likewise, you get the same end to end encryption that WhatsApp offers, ensuring no one else outside of the chat is getting your messages.
Other amazing safety and user features that makes Telegram worth your while include, but are not limited to:
- Supporting over 200,000 group members where WhatsApp will only take 256
- Secret/ private chats can make all the difference. Telegram makes this less obvious by allowing you to have normal and secret conversations with the same contact
- Self-destruct and disappearing messages appeared on Telegram first before they got to WhatsApp
- Messages deleted on one Telegram client are deleted forever on the other conversation side too.
- Secret messages are not stored on Telegram servers and can never be accessed with any other device
- Verified channels for an improved social media experience
If we’ll be honest, most of us did not give much attention to Signal before. That is not true for another group of people who had recognized the user privacy and safety strengths of this app for a very long time now.
Of those prominent names is Elon Musk. After the recent WhatsApp issue, Mr. Musk tweeted his users to start using the Signal service instead.
We tend to not trust the moves of these businesspeople. After all, he could have a substantial investment in the company and is trying to use his position to drive stocks up.
For that reason, we love the fact that Edward Snowden also backs this app. For anyone who knows the profile of Mr. Snowden, his recommendation should be good enough.
If that is not enough, you should also know that Brian Acton is one of the founders of this new service. That name rings a bell. After all, he is also the co-founder of WhatsApp who walked away from Facebook because he didn’t like how they were treating the WhatsApp he sold to them.
The features that make Signal fit enough to be recognized by these big names in tech include:
- Independent non-profit brand with no ties to any other company. This makes its loyalty to the users alone
- Even the stickers you send on Signal are encrypted!
- Relaying calls through a Signal server to hide your IP address
- Registration lock to prevent SIM-jacking
- Provision of disappearing messages
- Turn typing indicators on or off
- Disable Signal calls from showing on your call list, etc.
As much as we love this platform, we have to start with the bad news first:
If you don’t have an iOS or macOS device, you cannot use iMessage.
Now that we have that out of the way, every other thing about iMessage is great.
Like anything coming out of the Apple stables, this one is designed with ease of use in mind. They even allow you seamlessly integrate your normal SMS with the iMessage platform. Thus, you can text someone (using your data) and send them SMS messages in the same chat dashboard.
Besides that, iMessage carries the Apple promise of never collecting and/ selling sensitive user data for its gains. It is only right that they have end-to-end encryption services on this app also.
That’s not all there is to the iMessage platform, though. Other reasons that make it stand out to users are:
- The handoff between multiple devices. Start texting on your Apple Watch, continue on your iPhone, hop onto your iPad and finish up on your MacBook. And the conversation never breaks.
- Automatic deletion of messages from the phone after 30 days (optional)
- iMessage apps have no access to the contact details or other information of those you are chatting with
- Backed up messages to the bundled iCloud package
- Apple never stores the contents of any of your messages on any server
How can we forget good ol’ Threema?
Don’t tell us you haven’t heard of this guy. It brings to the IM game a kind of change that we hope to see in the future of privacy and data security.
To start with, Threema offers users the option to chat anonymously. This is possible by not asking for email or phone numbers to register the user. Thus, these users can have a conversation without having anything traced back to them.
How about the user’s IP address giving them away, though? Well, it’s a good thing that Threema does not log user files either – not even the IP address.
If that interests you already, wait till you learn that:
- Threema is open source so nothing is hidden in the codes
- Open source also means that the app gets updates and more features faster
- Allows users to create polls in-house to get their opinions/ votes in
- Particular chats can be locked with a password or biometric
- Of course, end to end encryption for your chats and media
- Threema maintains ownership of all its servers. Thus, they don’t have to share information with any company or other affiliates.
This one won’t be new to the gamers in the house.
Before you skip it, though, Discord has evolved into something much bigger than gaming only. The service had been developing itself as a secure chat platform for gamers so much that it became just that – a secure chat platform.
For one, Discord has years of social proof and development behind it. Likewise, they don’t have any motivation to collect and sell user data. All Discord wants is to be the sane community for gamers from all over the world to gather and discuss their passions.
Following that, Discord also allows you to register without having to share details like your name or phone number. If a breach were to happen, which we doubt, you would remain anonymous on the network.
We have to mention, however, that it’s not all rosy with Discord. For one, it takes quite the learning curve to add friends although that is not something to worry about. Likewise, you won’t be able to start a group chat with more than 10 participants unless you learn to start running your Discord server.
If you are willing to look beyond those minor snags, you also get to enjoy:
- Supports two-factor authentication for a better-secured account
- Scans your messages and media to remove explicit content before it gets to you (optional)
- Block messages from those not on your contact list. You would have to be on a Discord server to use this feature
- Control who can send you a friend request – even if they know your username
- Service is entirely based on subscriptions. No money is made by profiting off user data
- Always yearning to be better. Within one day of getting a damming Mozilla Foundation privacy report, Discord was the only of three named brands to issue fixes to their privacy concerns
Is That All About Online Privacy?
Now that you know which apps to go for and why, it is tempting to set up new accounts and feel like you have your online privacy game all figured out.
That could not be further from the truth.
Of course, these apps will get you safer chats and messaging, but you could still be exposed to other internet ills and online privacy issues. Where chat platforms are not involved, here are other things that you should be looking at right now:
1 Password Security
A lot has been said on this – and it seems like not everyone is listening till they become a victim of a breach. That won’t stop us from hammering on it again.
Your password is a solid line of defense against hackers. When hacks like:
- Dictionary attack;
- Rainbow table attack;
- Hybrid attacks and
- Brute force attacks; among others, are involved, a robust password could save you from falling victim.
First off, there is no un-hackable password. It would only take the hacker/ algorithm time to get to the root of the password. That is not all bad news, though.
With a secure password, a hacker might need several years to get a crack at your account. They would simply leave such accounts alone and go for those that they can hack in mere minutes to weeks. That is why we recommend:
- Using an online password generator to come up with stronger passwords
- Enabling 2FA wherever possible
- Saving all your unique passwords on a trusted password manager so you don’t have to worry about remembering them
- Never share your passwords with anyone
- Monitoring your account activity for suspicious logins and behaviors. In such cases, change your password completely.
2 Network Security
The very internet network that you connect to the web through could be the one to show you up.
This is often difficult for most people to grasp. Even after taking all the other relevant pieces of advice on staying secure, connecting to the wrong Wi-Fi network could undo all of that good work.
There is a reason why your internet service provider (ISP) can see all that you are doing on the internet. That is why they know when you have been illegally downloading content or visiting some banned websites.
Now that you are connected to a free Wi-Fi network, which could be owned by a rogue operator, they become your ISP. Thus, they can see all of your internet data – and even copy sensitive information that you are entering. By ‘sensitive information,’ we mean everything from passwords to credit card details.
Before you dump a free Wi-Fi network for general/ public Wi-Fi, know that they are in the same shoes. The lack of encryption on public Wi-Fi makes it easy for hackers who know what they are doing to inject malware onto your units and/ sniff around for your internet data.
Generally, these are the things to do for better network security:
- Never connect to a free/ public Wi-Fi network if you can help it.
- If you must connect to these networks, make sure to have Virtual Private Networks (VPN) handy. Layering your connection over a VPN tunnels your internet data so hackers can’t see what you are doing on the internet.
- Change your router’s default name and password
- Don’t connect all of your devices to the same router/ internet connection. That way, hackers don’t get a hold of all your units with one breach
3 Browser Security
We almost forgot about this one.
When you are not busy interacting with the web via apps/ programs/ software on your devices, you are surfing the internet with a browser. We do not give much thought to these browsers but they can make or mar your online privacy also.
- A Google Chrome user lost access to his life savings (in cryptocurrency) because he downloaded a malicious wallet app from the official app store
- Malvertising is commonplace today because of certain browser settings that don’t block ads
- The ‘Congratulations you have won’ virus is almost always traced back to a browser
- Incognito mode of browsing doesn’t protect you as much as you thought. Your browser history is not saved and cookies are expunged, but your employer/ school/ ISP can still see all that you do on the internet.
- … and many more.
This is not a call to dump all the browsers you have, though. Some of them are better suited to user privacy and security than the others. Those are the ones you want to get.
From the top choices, we found these picks to be the best of the bunch for user privacy and security:
- Tor browser – pair with a VPN for an even more secure internet-browsing experience
- Mozilla Firefox – from the same company that made the Tor browser. Head into the Settings dashboard to make this app a security and privacy powerhouse
- Safari – besides the fact that Apple is big on user privacy, this browser is tuned against browser fingerprinting, intelligent cooking tracking, ads, and more
- Brave browser – from one of the engineers that worked on the Firefox, it offers robust security setting out of the box
Now is the Time
Your guard is now up against the way big tech firms are continually threatening user privacy and security. Fortunately, you are not left without options to help you wriggle free from their hold.
Now that you know where to start from, this is the time to get to implementation.
We don’t guarantee that these are the only things you have to do for an optimum level of user privacy and security. However, we promise that your data privacy and internet security level won’t remain the same after taking the recommendations here to heart.