Facebook, Ginlo, Signal, Skype, Telegram, Threema and Wire: We looked at messenger apps with encryption to see how they say they deal with their users’ data.
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The essentials in brief:
- WhatsApp is the top dog among messengers. But when it comes to data protection, the Messenger from Facebook has been criticized.
- The consumer advice center NRW has looked at alternatives and shows what, among others, Ginlo, Signal, Skype, Telegram, Threema and Wire are doing differently.
- There are also a number of other messenger offers and options for confidential communication.
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According to its own statement, the US group does not currently use the WhatsApp account information for advertising purposes in Germany.
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WhatsApp originally wanted to get the approval by February 8th – after that, the account would have been blocked without approval. The date was then May 15thpostponed – only then should new functions become available after approval. WhatsApp has now also overturned the fact that the messenger can no longer be used as usual without consent, and the account will even be completely blocked sooner or later.
“Due to the update on May 15th, neither accounts will be deleted nor the functionality of WhatsApp restricted,” the operators explain in this help text . Nevertheless, users should always be asked for their consent. But: “There are currently no plans to make these reminders permanent or to limit the functionality of the app.”
Hamburg’s data protection authority criticizes, among other things: “With the new conditions, the data processing powers will be formally renewed and their content will be expanded in the future. There is no sufficient legal basis for processing the data by Facebook.
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Federal association of consumers is suing WhatsApp
The Federation of German Consumer Organizations (vzbv) filed a lawsuit against WhatsApp at the beginning of 2017 because of the data exchange. The proceedings are being conducted before the Berlin Regional Court under file number 52 O 22/17. The proceedings are currently on hold until the Federal Court of Justice has issued a judgment in another proceeding.
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If a chat is end-to-end encrypted, only the participants of that chat can access the content. If encryption has been implemented reliably, app operators cannot read along and release the data.
There is also transport encryption. Messages are encrypted between the users’ devices and the app operator’s server, but they may be stored unencrypted on the server and the devices.
In addition to SMS and e-mail, there are also other messenger apps as alternatives to WhatsApp. The consumer advice centers generally recommend using messengers that neither use news content nor other data of their users for advertising purposes or pass them on to other companies.
Which messengers we looked at – and which not
At the beginning of 2021, we looked at various apps from various providers and compared basic functions and statements from the operators on data protection. We only considered commercial apps that
- are available for the most popular operating systems (iOS and Android),
- were available in the official stores for Android and iOS at the time of the test,
- are considered pure messengers (i.e. no apps with additional messaging functions such as Instagram or TikTok),
- Offer end-to-end encryption at least adjustable and
- measured by the number of users have achieved a certain distribution in Germany or their operators are based in Germany.
The Snapchat app , which is particularly popular with young people , is no longer available because it does not offer end-to-end encryption . Message content could thus be read by the provider, for example. The end-to-end encrypted iMessage service is only available for Apple devices.
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We did not take into account aspects besides the data protection regulations, for example: How fast is the app and how stable are the servers? How user-friendly is the app designed in detail?
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We took a look at Facebook Messenger , Ginlo , Signal , Skype , Telegram , Threema , WhatsApp and Wire to see what the providers say in their data protection regulations and on their websites about leaving data traces (as of January / February 2021, you can find more details individual points in the attached PDF ).
Messenger that can be used anonymously
When asked about anonymous use, the question here is not whether you can remain anonymous to other users, but whether this is also possible with the provider. In our comparison, Threema is the only messenger that can be used without any personal information.
We took Hoccer into account in the comparison at the beginning of 2020. The app was discontinued in mid-May 2020. The operators write that the Corona crisis hit them on a personnel and financial level.
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Threema assigns a randomly generated ID under which you are displayed to others. You can enter your own name if you wish. The provider only saves your telephone number and / or email address on request and in each case encrypted (“hashed”) in order to make it easier to find and recognize. In addition, the phone numbers or email addresses of your contacts can be compared to find friends. For this purpose, the data from your own address book is not stored permanently, but a comparison is made using a temporary hash (an encryption or pseudonymization technique). Threema only gets the address book with e-mail addresses and phone numbers of friends anonymized and promises
Messenger with user registration
The Federation of German Consumer Organizations (vzbv) had sued against the obligation to use real names , among other things . The messenger requests access to stored cell phone contacts, but it can also be used without this permission. By default, there is no end-to-end encryption of the chats. Encryption can be activated for conversations with only two participants. This option is not available for group chats.
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In its data protection declaration, Facebook states that “content, communications and other information” are recorded. This also includes exchanging messages and communicating with others. According to its own information, Facebook uses the information, among other things, for the selection of advertising that is geared towards user interests. Even if encryption is activated in the individual chat, so-called metadata is generated, which can also be used for personalization (e.g. when, how often and for how long you chat with whom).
Successor to the SIMSme messenger app from Deutsche Post. Ginlo.net GmbH is based in Munich and states in the data protection declaration not to transfer any data to servers outside the European Economic Area. To use the mobile phone number must be given; Access to saved contacts is possible, but not absolutely necessary. End-to-end encryption is standard. In each chat, the self-destruction in several time levels can be selected separately for individual messages.
If you want to use Signal, you cannot avoid giving your own telephone number. A username is also required – but here the messenger is also satisfied with specifying a pseudonym or even an emoji. If you do not allow access to the contacts, you have to type in the recipient’s phone number by hand. All chats are end-to-end encrypted by default. The encryption technology provider, Open Whisper Systems, does not provide any data protection declaration in German. The company is based in the USA. The disappearance of individual messages can be activated in different time levels for each chat and then affects all future messages in this chat.
To use Skype, you need a Microsoft account. This requires an email address or a mobile phone number. You can also have Microsoft set up an email address for you. You can set whether other Skype users can see your personal data. End-to-end encryption is only available when you are having a “private conversation”. This is only available for another chat participant and not for groups. The content of normal chats is stored on servers by Skype. However, Microsoft does not explicitly explain how this data is stored (whether encrypted or not) and where the corresponding servers are located in neither the data protection declaration nor the Skype Help.
Wire cannot be used without providing a name and a cell phone number or email address. Since Wire can be used across the board on smartphones and computers, message content is cached in encrypted form on servers until it is delivered. The messenger synchronizes the contacts by using encrypted phone numbers from its own contact book. However, this is voluntary – Wire can also be used without access to the address book. In each chat, the self-destruction in several time levels can be selected separately for individual messages.
Possible third-party services, e.g. from YouTube or Spotify, are also pointed out in the data protection declaration. The respective providers are responsible for their possible use of data. These features should be avoided if you do not want companies to potentially receive data.
In addition to the messengers tested here, there are also free messenger apps as an alternative to WhatsApp & Co. In contrast to the closed systems in which only users of the same service can communicate with each other and are thus dependent on one provider, the alternatives work similarly to E -Mail services. For this you usually need your own server or an account on a server (comparable to an e-mail address with a provider) and also a suitable messenger app (comparable to the program with which you receive your e-mails and send).
The messengers are technically based on a standard protocol (mostly XMPP or Matrix), which enables messages to be exchanged across different messenger apps that work with the same protocol. Interlocutors do not need to have the same app installed in order to communicate with each other. Based on XMPP, there are Messenger Conversations , Quicksy or Yaxim for Android , for example ChatSecure , Monal or Siskin for iOS . For Matrix, for example, there is the Messenger Element (formerly Riot) for both Android and iOS.
Your experiences are important!
Your experience can be very valuable for observing the market from the consumer’s point of view : Tell us about your difficulties with companies, suppliers or products .
Reduce tracks yourself
Regardless of the promises made by the providers as to how they will handle the data obtained, you can reduce your own traces to other messenger users. You do not necessarily have to enter your correct, full name, you can do without a profile photo or choose a general motif and limit the visibility of some information to certain user groups (e.g. only contacts / friends).
Status messages such as “Online” or “Read” make your usage behavior more transparent and can lead to unwanted conflicts. You can therefore deactivate the corresponding messages for some services. The following table gives you an overview of which options Messenger offer and which can be deactivated (as of January 2021).
|Read receipt||Online status||is typing|
|signal||adjustable||there is not any||adjustable|
|Skype||adjustable||adjustable||cannot be switched off while mobile, only on the PC|
|Telegram||cannot be switched off||adjustable||adjustable|
|Threema||adjustable||there is not any||adjustable|
|Wire||adjustable||there is not any||cannot be switched off|
Sometimes you don’t want messages or photos to be forever available to the recipient. Facebook, Ginlo, Signal, Telegram, WhatsApp and Wire offer corresponding options in different ways. In all cases, however, the content of the message can be saved in some other way before it disappears, for example by taking screenshots. And the disappearance from a chat history does not automatically mean that the messages are also deleted on the servers of the messenger operator.
All messengers mentioned here can be used not only for direct communication with another person, but also for group conversations. It can happen that others add you to a group with people who are strangers to you. As a result, the strangers may find out personal information from you, such as your cell phone number. With WhatsApp and Telegram you can set who can add you to a group or whether you only join a group after your confirmation. Threema does not offer this option, but can be used completely anonymously. Unless you have entered your personal data, strangers will not find out anything about you, even in Threema groups.
Delete WhatsApp account
If you no longer want to use WhatsApp, it is not enough to simply uninstall the app. You’ll also need to delete your account before uninstalling the app . Our pictures show step by step how it works on Android, iOS and Windows:
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