Keep it secret, keep it safe
The proliferation of messaging apps across mobile devices means that we can keep in touch with dozens of people at once, from friends and family to clients and colleagues, even if they happen to be on the other side of the world. But to ensure that your conversations stay private, you really need to get one of the secure mobile messaging apps on offer out there.
These are the apps which offer end-to-end encryption – in other words, the chat is scrambled so only the sender and the receiver can understand what’s being said.
Encryption means that even if someone should hack the messaging app’s servers, or tap into your conversations thanks to the badly secured Wi-Fi at your local coffee shop, they still won’t be able to interpret the messages. Here are the best Android apps with this feature.
- One of our best VPN services can also help you stay secure online
The gold standard of encrypted messaging
Signal is widely regarded as the gold standard of encrypted messaging apps, not least because its encryption engine is open source and available for anyone to inspect. That doesn’t make it any easier to hack, but it does mean there are a lot more pairs of eyes looking at the robustness of the encryption methods.
Besides the industry-leading encryption on offer here, the app itself is fairly plain and basic in terms of visuals and appearance. It does support group chats though, as well as the sending of files and photos in addition to text, so you’re going to be pretty well covered no matter what your needs.
Signal can replace the default SMS app if you want it to, but basic SMS texts aren’t encrypted – you and the person you’re chatting with both need to have Signal installed for the encryption feature to function properly, otherwise Signal doesn’t have enough control over both ends of the conversation.
The app also includes several other useful features on top of the tight security, such as video calling, and disappearing messages that vanish after a certain time period (perfect for those conversations you don’t want to stay on the record).
Keep your chats securely locked
Telegram is almost as well-respected as Signal is, although its encryption methods aren’t open source and thus haven’t been as well audited by third-party security experts. What it does have in its favor is a slicker interface, if that’s important to you.
Another black mark against Telegram is that end-to-end encryption isn’t enabled by default, so you need to make sure the Secret mode is activated before you can be sure that no one else is going to tap into your communications. Other types of chat and file transfer are encrypted, but only for part of their journey to other parties.
Those caveats aside, Telegram impresses in most areas, with features like chat backups and disappearing messages (messages with expiry times attached). You can load up group chats, make video calls and more, and in use it’s just as responsive and intuitive as the other messaging apps out there.
If you need all the bells and whistles of an instant messenger, like stickers and audio memos, and even basic photo and video editing, Telegram is a solid choice. Just be sure to enable the Secret mode for the most secure messaging.
The fully featured instant messenger
You’re no doubt already familiar with WhatsApp as one of the best messaging apps out there, but you might not have realized that it offers end-to-end encryption for your messages – in fact, it uses the super-strong encryption protocol developed by Signal.
There’s very little that WhatsApp can’t do. As well as the standard text-based conversations, it’s able to handle video calls, group chats, location sharing, and the transferring of files of various types. You can ping a lot of people at once with the Broadcast feature, leave voice memos, and more besides.
WhatsApp’s immense popularity works in its favor as well, because the chances are that the people in your contacts list already have it installed to keep in touch with friends and family. All those chats are fully encrypted by default – there’s no way to turn this off.
What might give you pause when it comes to using this app is that it is, of course, owned by Facebook, which means you’re contributing to the data collection practices of the world’s biggest social network. Facebook can’t read your messages (the end-to-end encryption prevents that), but it can log other data about you for marketing purposes, like the location of your phone.
Protection for your texts
The unfussy, no-frills Silence focuses on keeping your messages safe and secure, with other considerations – like animated animal stickers – some way down the priority list. It deals directly with SMS and MMS, rather than chat protocols that work over the web.
It is in fact a spin-off from Signal, and uses the same open source, ultra-secure encryption methods – regularly audited by security experts in public view to make sure the code hasn’t been cracked or unlocked by whatever government agency wants to get its hands on your conversation history. If you wanted to, you could use Silence and Signal together.
So you get all of the benefits of SMS/MMS, like the ability to use it without Wi-Fi, as well as all the drawbacks, like limited support for group chats and no video calling. As you’re using SMS/MMS, your phone network can tell who you’re texting, even if it can’t tell what’s being said thanks to the encryption applied.
To make sure everything is secured as it should be, you need to enter a unique passphrase to keep the app locked. On top of that, it can stop your communications being screen-shotted at the other end, for extra peace of mind.
Social networking with added encryption
That’s right – friendly old Facebook Messenger uses end-to-end encryption too, which means your messages can’t be intercepted by hackers, demanded by the government, or spied on by Facebook staff (yes, it’s the same Signal protocol used by WhatsApp and Silence). You do need to turn the feature on though, via the Secret Conversation setting you’ll find in the conversation options.
At the same time, of course, you’re contributing to the masses of data that Facebook holds on you, as you are with WhatsApp. The content of your messages is all safe, but Messenger will take note of who you’re chatting with and where from, which in Facebook’s eyes helps it to improve products and services. You should only use Messenger if you’re comfortable with Facebook’s data and privacy practices.
Outside of the encryption options, you get just about every feature you can imagine being packed into an instant messenger – the ability to share anything from a photo to your location, easy group chatting, stickers and GIFs, video calling, and so on. There’s even a range of simple games you can play inside the app.
You can’t fault Facebook Messenger from a usability point of view, but having to jump through an extra hoop to get encryption enabled is disappointing, and you can’t encrypt conversations you’ve already had. On the plus side, it’s unlikely you’ll have to tell your contacts to install another app, as they probably already have this set up.