Best messaging apps
Last updated: July 19, 2021

We have two recommendations for messaging apps: Apple's Messages app, and Signal.

• Apple's Messages app: Built into iPhones, iPads, and Macs, it requires no installation and is easy to use. But don't use Messages for secure communications (see Details below).

Signal: A free open-source app that sends encrypted messages across all platforms. Signal is funded by the nonprofit Signal Foundation, started by Brian Acton as an act of "penance" after making a fortune from selling WhatsApp to Facebook, which Acton calls "my crime" (see Facebook: The Inside Story by Steven Levy, p. 506).

A warning about encryption apps

However: Don't put too much faith in encryption. If you're sending messages on a digital device, government agencies (like the NSA) or corporations (like Apple or Google) may still have "backdoor" access to your data, even if they claim not to. For example:

• Pegasus, an Israeli cyber-surveillance tool, appears to be able to get around Signal’s encryption. From the New York Times (July 18, 2021): “The new accusations heightened concerns among privacy activists that no smartphone user — even those using software like WhatsApp or Signal — is safe from governments and anyone else with the right cyber-surveillance tech.”

• Yasha Levine points out that the U.S. government, through a CIA subsidiary, is likely also a funder of Signal (sources: 1, 2, 3).

Tech details about Apple Messages

Encryption in Messages is never guaranteed, no matter what Apple claims. For starters, using Messages to chat with a non-Apple device, like an Android phone, is not encrypted. But even communicating with another Apple device is fully encrypted only if backup settings are turned off by both sender and receiver (sources: 1, 2). This means that encryption is out of your direct control, since you need to rely on the other party to set the setting correctly. Thus there is no way to guarantee end-to-end encryption with Messages. (And that's in addition to the "backdoor" access that government agencies and corporations likely retain to all Messages communication, as noted above.)

Other options

Telegram: A free messaging app created by a Russian cryptography expert. Telegram is designed more for group communication (which, strangely enough, is not encrypted on Telegram). A chat between just two users can be encrypted, but it requires changing a default setting. Also, Telegram is not open source, which leads some experts to question the strength of its encryption.

Threema: End-to-end encryption from this for-pay app. Based in Switzerland and open source. (See also this June 6, 2021 interview in German with Threema founders, translatable on DeepL.)

Element: A secure chat app that runs on the decentralized Matrix network. Element makes money from corporate plans with extra features.

Postal mail: Don't laugh. While the U.S. Postal Service does surveil the metadata (from address, to address, and date) on envelopes, it's unlikely to open the contents. If you want to send a private message to someone, a sealed paper envelope is still a good choice.

• Many more messaging services in a comparison grid on Wikipedia.

What NOT to use

Whatever you do, don't use WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. Both of these services are owned by Facebook, which has a long track record of destroying users' privacy for profit, then lying about it later. (That's why Brian Acton says selling WhatsApp to Facebook was a "crime" that deserves "penance.")