A lot of people have become wary of using the popular instant messaging app WhatsApp since the company botched an update to its privacy policy earlier this year.

When it announced the changes, it failed to make it clear that none of them affected the end-to-end encryption that protects individual and group chats. Instead, the changes - which allowed more data to be shared with third parties and, potentially, parent company Facebook - were to do with chats between users and businesses on WhatsApp.

Nevertheless, many users are still wondering whether to ditch WhatsApp and what are the alternatives that will keep their chats and personal data secure.

Is Signal more secure than WhatsApp?

Signal, which was founded by former Facebook employee Brian Acton and Moxie Marlinspike, has fewer users than WhatsApp and Telegram.

In fact, prior to the WhatsApp privacy policy saga, it was a niche messaging app. But the fact that Elon Musk then told users to "use Signal" meant its userbase increased five-fold in a single day. It's also recommended by Edward Snowden and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Signal offers broadly similar features to WhatsApp and a similar interface, but the difference is that it's an open source platform (which means it can be checked for vulnerabilities by security researchers) that's not run for profit.

Interestingly, Signal's encryption protocol is actually used in WhatsApp, so there's no difference in the security you get when sending messages to individuals or groups in either app.

Unlike WhatsApp, however, Signal does not have a cloud backup feature which means that chat history would be lost if your phone was stolen or damaged. It is possible to use the ‘chats backup’ feature to transfer them to a new phone but this must the same type as your current phone: Android to Android or iOS to iOS.

Plus, WhatsApp recently announced that its backups will now include end-to-end encryption. Previously, this was only available when transferred to Google Drive or iCloud but now the end-to-end encryption will be available during the transfer too. This is something Signal doesn't have.

There's another difference: Signal collects only the contact information it needs, but doesn't link it to you. By contrast WhatsApp collects a lot and does link it to you. You can see the difference in the image below. 

WhatsApp vs Signal privacy

Should I switch from WhatsApp to Signal?

So, Signal is arguably safer to use than WhatsApp. It doesn't offer cloud backups, but that doesn't make it less secure: it just means it lacks that feature.

Functionally, Signal lets you do the same things as WhatsApp: chat using text, emojis, GIFs, stickers, as well as voice and video calling. 

Group chats support up to 1000 people, though voice and video calling is currently limited to eight people, just like WhatsApp.

Signal has a ‘disappearing messages’ feature as well, but it can be set using a timer of five seconds to seven days. This means that once the timer has passed messages will automatically disappear, and this option can be set by anyone in the chat.

In terms of usability, both services require that you provide a mobile phone number. WhatsApp now allows up to four companion devices, but they can't be other phones. 

It's the same with Signal: you can use only one phone and up to five other devices (PCs, laptops, tablets).

Signal introduced the ability to use a PIN instead of a phone number but you will initially need to register with a phone number, and then you can use it on another device or PC with your PIN.

But what is most likely to convince you to switch to Signal is the fact that it doesn't collect personal data like WhatsApp does. The sticking point could be whether you can persuade friends and family to make the switch to Signal with you, as there's no point in making a stand about privacy if you can't communicate with your friends and family.

Despite the furore over WhatsApp's privacy policy, most people have continued using the app. They might be unaware of the data it collects and links to you, or they simply don't care about it. The fact is - as WhatsApp has repeatedly pointed out - neither WhatsApp or Facebook knows what you say or share in chats, voice or video calls. And for many, that's enough of a reason to stay.

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