The Thin Line of Privacy in Messaging Apps

When WhatsApp announced they will be making some changes to their privacy terms and conditions, many users were disturbed by it. This led to a huge exodus away from the messaging app to alternative messaging services that supposedly have better security and privacy policies. In fact, the amount of WhatsApp users moving away from the app was so high that the company eventually announced that they will not be making any changes to their policies for now.

However, the damage has already been done. We explained the consequences that arose from this initial ruling in this article. So what are the alternatives that have arisen in the last couple of weeks? A tweet from Elon Musk recommending the messaging app Signal was well taken with the app receiving a huge increase of the users till it crashed for a short while.

Another app that saw increased users was Telegram. Now, Telegram has already been popular among many users as it allows a large number of participants in group chats compared to WhatsApp. Apart from that, a lot of government agencies and media organisations in Southeast Asia have also been using the app to communicate with their followers.

There are many other messaging apps that offer similar services. You can read more about them here. But there is still one problem that comes from these apps. Are they really secure and take privacy as seriously as they claim to?

CyberSecurity ASEAN caught up with Alain Ghiai, Founder and CEO at GlobeX Data, who outlined “there is no such thing as privacy if you are not paying for it”.

While WhatsApp has delayed their changes to their policies, the fact is, WhatsApp is owned by Facebook. And whether we like it or not, Facebook has access to our data. The only question is, are they using our data with our permission or without our permission.

Many of us have experienced scenarios whereby we have conversations on certain topics on WhatsApp with our contacts and suddenly end up seeing those topics being marketed to us on Facebook, Instagram or any other app operated by them. Alain explained that the same applies to apps on the public cloud, be AWS, Microsoft or Google. All these tech companies can have access to our data.

“The minute you give your mobile phone number, you can be traced. WhatsApp have been streamlining our data for the longest time. While there are local regulations on data transfer, most of these applications have their servers in the US and all data is streamlined there”.

Does Privacy Really Exist With Instant Messaging Apps?
So, do apps like Signal and Telegram have better security and privacy compliance?

According to Alain, while the belief is that these apps are generally more secure than WhatsApp, they are in fact not. Signal for example is an app developed by a non-profit US-based organisation. While they do not profit from your data, eventually they still need funds to run the application. And these funds will come from the data.

For Telegram, Alain said it was more concerning. Simply because Telegram has often been used by the wrong groups of people for the wrong purposes. This is true as there have been Telegram groups in Southeast Asia that have been used for illegal content, like the sharing of pornography and such. The app is secured but also uses technology that can be vulnerable to threats.

“Any messaging application that uses open source is vulnerable. Most of these apps do not use proprietary technology and always request a mobile number. Privacy does not exist in that. Also, if they run on a public platform, they are prone to the Cloud Act. If you are using a US-based platform, the data goes to the US and can be subpoenaed”, said Alain.

A Paid and Secure Option
But worry not. There are options available on the market for instant messaging that guarantee better security and privacy. These applications are normally hosted with proprietary technology and do cost a small sum.

One of them is Sekur Communication’s messaging service, of which Alain is also the CEO. Sekur is a Swiss secure communications application offering secure and private voice messages, chat, self-deleting chat, file transfer and email via any mobile device, tablet or desktop.

As they are a Swiss-based organisation, they are known for their neutrality, stability, low network latency, long-lasting stability and privacy. Similar to the once-popular BlackBerry messaging services, secure messaging allows users to send highly secure and private chat messages to other Sekur users. The content is not monitored and they do not store messages on their servers.

“Sekur does not require a mobile phone number or use any third-party platform or open-source. The proprietary tech and platform are independent. It is the ultimate privacy available”, said Alain.

Businesses, governments and people who value privacy understand the importance of this and are willing to pay for the service. Sekur charges a fee because they don’t make money from their customer data. They charge because they need to pay for their servers, staff and such.

Sekur currently has clients in Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan and are looking to build a presence in Southeast Asia in the near future.

“At the end of the day, if you want privacy, you need to pay it”, commented Alain.

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