What you need to know about Telegram, the WhatsApp alternative
Are you looking to leave the Facebook-owned private messaging app WhatsApp?
You’re not alone. Following terms of service update that now allows WhatsApp to share your data with its parent company, privacy-concerned users are looking for alternatives.
Telegram has been around since 2013, but it's currently having a moment. In the wake of the WhatsApp controversy, the company, which pushes itself as a privacy-focused service that provides both one-on-one secure messaging and more social features like group chats, shared that it had gained 25 million users over a 72-hour period in mid-January. The service says it now has 500 million active users.
Telegram is often grouped with Signal, another messaging app popular among those looking for a secure messaging solution.
But what is Telegram? How does it compare to WhatsApp and Signal? And how much should you be concerned by its previous controversies involving terrorists, far-right extremists, and revenge porn distributors? Let’s take a look.
Who owns Telegram?
Telegram is owned by the same two people who founded the company in Russia in 2013, Pavel Durov and his brother Nikolai. Pavel is also the company’s CEO.
Pavel Durov has been dubbed Russia’s Mark Zuckerberg, as he had originally founded that country’s biggest social networking site, known as VK. The company made him a billionaire.
While VK still exists, Pavel completely cut ties with the social platform he founded in 2014. VK had been known for fighting back against Kremlin censorship. Then allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin consolidated their shares to take an ownership stake. Pavel was forced out of his role, sold his remaining shares, and left Russia for Germany. According to Pavel, he was pushed out for refusing to provide VK user data to the Russian government or shut down a group for anti-corruption advocate and opposition leader Alexei Navalny that ran on the social network.
Telegram is Pavel’s continuation of the online free-speech efforts that started with VK. The company is registered in the U.S. as an LLC. The team has moved around since its inception and was last reported to be located in Dubai.
Is the Telegram app secure?
Telegram’s current boost in popularity is coming from users looking for a more secure messaging app. The company even accentuates its focus on privacy. Interestingly, though, Telegram has a shaky history when it comes to that.
Unlike other secure messaging app options, Telegram does not have end-to-end encryption on by default. End-to-end encryption ensures that only the parties involved in the communication, i.e., the sender and receiver, can read the messages.
Even the messaging app that hosts the servers where these messages are stored cannot read them.
To activate end-to-end encryption on Telegram, you must make your chats “secret.” And you need to do this one by one with each of your contacts.
However, even then, not all of Telegram’s messaging features are end-to-end encrypted. One of Telegram’s most popular features is its group chats. Those are not end-to-end encrypted. Neither are messages sent to you by those who aren’t on your contacts list whom you’ve yet to turn end-to-end encryption on for.
Telegram’s unique combination of private messaging and social networking features has been attractive to certain users. Plus, the app has very lax content moderation to boost its privacy-focused bona fides, appealing to those users.
Unfortunately, some of those users are extremists. The messaging app has had a history of problems with foreign terrorists using the app. Telegram was once a major online propaganda tool for groups like ISIS, although the company has cracked down on that over the past few years.
What's the difference between Telegram and WhatsApp?
The odds are good that if you’re looking into Telegram as your new messenger app of choice, you’re fleeing WhatsApp.
In 2014, Facebook announced that it was buying the popular messaging app WhatsApp. Since then, the social media giant has mostly treated WhatsApp as a separate entity from its social networking platform.
That all changed in early 2021 when WhatsApp’s terms of service were updated to inform users that their user data would now be shared with its parent company, Facebook. Users were outraged. While WhatsApp tried to clarify these terms, users who already distrusted Facebook wouldn't be convinced. The magnitude of the WhatsApp exodus is unclear, but as competitors like Signal and Telegram flew to the top of the App Store charts, WhatsApp completely dropped out of the top 20 apps.
Many of these security-conscience users seem to have landed on Telegram. Ironically enough, if security is first on your mind, WhatsApp is the better choice. WhatsApp messages are end-to-end encrypted by default. Further, all messaging on WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted by default, even group chats.
In some ways, Telegram functions like a social network, even more so than WhatsApp, the messaging service run by a social network. Users on Telegram can choose a username along with the required phone number registration, while WhatsApp and other messengers tie your identity to your phone number. Telegram can also host up to 200,000 users in a single group chat. On WhatsApp, the group chat limit is 256 people.
When it comes to choosing between Telegram and WhatsApp, it really comes down to this: if you’re looking for a messaging service that will collect less of your data, choose WhatsApp. If you’re looking for a messaging app that’s less likely to use that data in some way, Telegram is your choice. Telegram has previously gone on the record saying they have no interest in selling the company or serving users advertising; hence, your data is least likely to land in the hands of third-party organizations.
OK, but what about Telegram vs. Signal?
If you’re looking for a truly secure messaging alternative to WhatsApp, go with Signal instead of Telegram.
Signal is, hands down, the most secure of these messaging platforms. Messages are end-to-end encrypted out of the box. Users can even set messages to disappear after a certain amount of time.
Another major plus when it comes to security is how little data Signal collects from you. All you provide Signal with is a phone number. Signal is even working on a system that wouldn’t require providing them with your phone number and would instead involve storing user identities securely on their servers. The Signal app is free and open-source software.
Signal is really meant for one-on-one communication with people you know, though you can create group chats with up to 1,000 participants. However, if a user wants a more social network-Esque messaging app, that’s when they’d go with Telegram. Just remember, those Telegram group chats aren't end-to-end encrypted.
Where to download Telegram
If you’re looking to download Telegram, you can go to Telegram.org for the app's desktop versions for Mac and PC. The Telegram app's mobile versions can be found on Apple’s App Store for the iPhone and iPad and Google Play for Android.