These days almost everyone who has a smart phone uses some sort of messaging service. It just comes with the territory. As I was reading some news reports this weekend, I found out about a messaging service that (I’m ashamed to say) I had never heard of before: Telegram. According to some news reports, Telegram has become the messaging service of choice for the ISIS and pro-jihadi crowd, supposedly for the “security” of its encryption services. ISIS’s mastery of modern communications systems should never be underestimated. This is a radical revolutionary movement that spends a great deal of effort learning how to penetrate the West’s vulnerabilities.
This piqued my interest. I have been a user of WhatsApp, Viber, and Skype for a long time and have been generally satisfied with what they offer. I use all of them in one way or another, as it seems that each one has its own unique strong points. I’ve never used Telegram or known anyone who does, so I tried to do some research to see if Telegram is a messaging app worth using. I thought Return Of Kings readers would find this kind of discussion useful when deciding which messaging app to use.
Let’s first give a bit of background information about Telegram. The company was founded by two brothers, Nikolai and Pavel Durov. After founding a social network company called Vkontakte, the brothers moved to Berlin in 2014 in the wake of the political problems in the Ukraine. Telegram was founded there. As of the time of writing, Telegram has about 100 million users worldwide, while WhatsApp has well over a billion. WhatsApp has a better claim to be the “industry standard.”
Some of the articles about Telegram that I read portrayed its encryption as being superior to what was offered by WhatsApp. The details are these. Telegram uses its own encryption protocol rather than something developed by someone else. Deleted messages on Telegram can’t be decrypted, according to the company. However, unlike WhatsApp, a user of Telegram has to request encryption. In WhatsApp, encryption is done automatically; the user has no choice in the matter. WhatsApp also does not store messages; it just forwards them on to you. The more I looked into the details, the more it seemed that Telegram’s vaunted security features where not as good as the publicity was claiming.
On the other hand, there are some good features to Telegram that should not be underrated. For one thing—and this is important to me—Telegram lets you sign in to its service on a desktop computer as well as on your phone. I like this feature very much. One old messaging service (apparently defunct now) I used was called MessageMe, and it employed this sign-in feature. Sometimes you want to chat with someone using a computer rather than peck out messages on a phone. Telegram also has a two-step authentication feature that WhatsApp doesn’t have.
Both services use your phone number to authenticate, but with Telegram you can also set a secondary password for extra security. Telegram also does not have to be downloaded from official app stores: it is considered “open source” in that it can be built by the user himself. For example, Telegram has browser apps for Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome. The bottom line is that Telegram is very flexible and can be used in a wide variety of locations and platforms. You can install it on any phone or platform.
Another irritating thing about WhatsApp is that you have to give it access to your entire “address book” in order to use the app. I don’t think people these days are very thrilled about doing this. So rather than having to give out (or ask for) other people’s telephone numbers, you can give out a username; this allows you to keep your phone number private. This looks like a very strong point for Telegram. In recent years I’ve noticed people starting to get very protective of their phone numbers, for better or for worse.
For what it’s worth, WhatsApp has better group chat features (I never use these). It also offers encrypted phone calls, and this is something I do use. But for me the biggest selling point for WhatsApp is the fact that it is used by so many more people than Telegram. Messaging apps are only useful if people are using them. In some countries people are using WhatsApp to the exclusion of every other messaging app. That may change in the future, of course.
What do I conclude from all this? Telegram has some impressive features: it is probably more secure overall, and can be used in more ways than WhatsApp. But for me, these things are not enough to make me abandon WhatsApp. How much “security” does the average person who is not a criminal or a terrorist really need? Is it really that big of a deal? I also happen to believe that every electromagnetic form of communication can be decoded if someone really wants to do so. “Security” is a lot of marketing, in my opinion. None of these things are truly secure. It’s a matter of degree, of course, and I’m not saying that you should discount it completely.
Readers should probably experiment with both apps and choose the one that meets their needs. I have found, for example, that Viber’s phone calls are better than Skype’s, but not as many people use Viber. You have to consider all the factors that matter to you, and do what works for your situation.