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The battle of encrypted messaging apps

Feb 23, 2016, 2:21 PM EST
Source: Microsiervos/flickr
Source: Microsiervos/flickr

On Tuesday, the CEO of Telegram, an encrypted messaging service, told the audience at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, that the mobile messaging app had surpassed 100 million monthly active users — a 60% increase in 9 months. Pavel Durov, Telegram founder and CEO, said that the company is sending 15 billion messages a day.

While other messaging services like WhatsApp and Facebook have long surpassed those figures (1 billion monthly active users for the former, and Facebook closely behind), the trajectory of Telegram’s growth is noteworthy. Remember that the messaging service earned notoriety following deadly attacks on Paris last November when reports pointed out that the app’s encryption technology likely became a tool for terrorists to spread propaganda.

Telegram’s user base rose alongside this spike in attention. Clearly, the lure of encrypted messages is more enticing than ever to users around the world, particularly in an age in which governments gaining access to user data is constant front-page news.

While reports abound as to the holes in Telegram’s encryption, claiming it is no more secure than any other messaging service, its purported privacy structure remains key to its success. WhatsApp has struggled with its own encryption services, contending with user complaints year after year, which has been supported by industry research. Most recently WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum revealed that the Facebook-owned company had overhauled its key-storing operations in a partnership with Open Whisper Systems. The new encryption WhatsApp employs involves storing keys for unscrambling encryption on a user’s device instead of a centralized server, as most messaging apps do. “Forward secrecy” is then employed with TextSecure, a service that uses end-to-end encryption for secure messaging transmission, to create a new key for every message sent.

Telegram features how it is different from WhatsApp all over its website; when it comes to security, it notes: “We are based on the MTProto protocol … built upon time-tested algorithms to make security compatible with high-speed delivery and reliability on weak connections…We support two layers of secure encryption. Server-client encryption is used in Cloud Chats (private and group chats), Secret Chats use an additional layer of client-client encryption. All data, regardless of type, is encrypted in the same way — be it text, media or files.”

And as Forbes points out, there is a twist to Telegram: the chat bot. Users can send messages to the bots and while they respond as if they were other human users, they can employ specific functions like providing trivia, sending gifs, or playing games like Hangman. (Forbes further notes that it launched its own Forbesbot on Telegram, which “pings users with news stories.”)

Although Telegram’s “secret chats” are undoubtedly not the main enticement for the user seeking heavily-encrypted communication, it’s clear that the idea that one’s communication is completely hidden from prying eyes is more attractive to users than ever before. Just look at Telegram’s soaring number of users. 

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