The encrypted messaging services have become the world’s hottest apps over the last week, driven by growing anxiety over the power of the biggest tech companies and privacy concerns.
At the start of 2021, Signal and Telegram are on top of the app store charts. Both chat apps promise more privacy than WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and SMS. But there are some big differences between the two. Here’s what you should know—and which you should use.
What Signal and Telegram Have in Common
Signal and Telegram both advertise themselves as private and secure. Neither is owned by a big tech company. Signal is owned by a non-profit organization, while Telegram is owned by a for-profit company.
Both Signal and Telegram are chat apps with all the standard features, from stickers to photo and file transfers to voice and video calls.
Signal and Telegram both offer apps for iPhone, iPad, and Android. Each is free, and a phone number is all you need to sign up for either. Both offer optional desktop apps so that you can chat on a Windows PC, Mac, or Linux system, giving you the option to chat on your computer with its full keyboard.
Signal Has Better Privacy Features Than Telegram
Signal is built from the ground up for privacy, and it shows. All conversations and other communications on Signal are end-to-end encrypted between devices running Signal. The company in charge of Signal, the Signal Foundation, couldn’t even see your messages if it wanted to.
Telegram offers optional end-to-end encryption. You have to start a “Secret Chat.” In Signal, everything is a secret chat—by default, and always. All Telegram messages are encrypted between you and the Telegram server, but the company in charge of Telegram could technically view your messages on its server if it liked—unless you start a “Secret Chat.”
Also, in Telegram, you can’t have a group “Secret Chat.” You can only get end-to-end encryption in conversations between two people. Unlike Telegram, Signal offers encrypted group chats.
All your Signal conversations are stored only on your device by default. In Telegram, they’re stored on Telegram’s servers and can be synchronized between your devices. (You can still use Signal between multiple devices and synchronize messages from one device to another. But you can’t just log into Signal on the web and find all your conversations right there.)
Signal is completely open-source—both the code for the Signal clients and the code for the Signal server can be found on GitHub. The code for Telegram’s apps is open-source, but Telegram’s server software is not open-source.
Some security researchers have argued that Signal’s encryption protocol is better and more bulletproof than Telegram’s MTProto encryption protocol, although this is a complicated and disputed topic.
The Signal app is developed by the Signal Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by donations. Telegram is run by a for-profit corporation and has wrestled with a variety of plans to make money, including an ill-fated cryptocurrency offering.
Signal also has other built-in features around privacy, including the ability to automatically blur faces in the photos you send.
Telegram Has Some Niceties Signal Doesn’t Offer
While Signal has the clear advantage when it comes to privacy, Telegram offers a variety of convenience features that Signal doesn’t have.
In Telegram, you can have up to 200,000 in a group chat. In Signal, you can only have up to 1000 people. In Telegram, you can transfer files up to 2 GB in size. In Signal, you can only transfer files up to 100 MB in size.
Telegram offers cloud message synchronization—you can even sign into Telegram on the web and continue your conversations. That’s a tradeoff—unlike in Signal, where your conversations are all stored locally on your devices, the conversations are all stored on Telegram’s servers. (Unless you start a “Secret Chat.”)
Telegram lets you add bots to conversations, but this means that conversations you add bots to have less private encryption. Signal doesn’t have bots that can interact with conversations, ensuring privacy—but not giving you the option to use bots.
Overall, the Telegram app also has a shinier interface, with more available sticker packs, animated stickers, and customizable background images for your conversations. As of January 11, 2021, Signal is working on adding many of these features.
Signal vs. Telegram: Which Should You Use?
If you’re serious about maximum privacy for your communications, you should pick Signal. It’s built from the ground up to be as private as possible by default. It’s clear why (as of early January 2021) Signal is beating Telegram on the App Store charts.
If some of Telegram’s features appeal to you—for example, if you want bots, very large group chats, or transfers of larger files, that’s a good argument for using Telegram. Maybe you’re fine with storing all your conversations on a cloud server for conveninence, but you just want to get away from Facebook—that’s a good argument for using Telegram.
Of course, which service you end up using depends on which service your friends, family, coworkers, and other people you want to talk to use. You might even end up using both to talk to different people. Feel free to give both a try.
Ultimately, either Signal or Telegram beats WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger when it comes to privacy. Neither app is linked to Facebook, as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are. Both Signal and WhatsApp are much more secure than SMS, which allows your cellular carrier to see every message you send.
Of course, both Signal and Telegram are changing over time and gaining new features. It’s worth doing your own research and playing with them to see which you prefer.
For privacy-focused users, the big difference is that everything is always end-to-end encrypted in Signal, whereas Telegram offers end-to-end encryption as an optional feature that you have to go out of your way to use.
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