While Telegram is seen as a secure alternative, it’s important to note that messages sent over the platform are not end-to-end encrypted by default. Instead, only “secret messages” are encrypted with this protocol. In contrast, all communications on WhatsApp and Signal are end-to-end encrypted—which offers more security for the end-user.
What is end-to-end encryption?
End-to-end encryption is basically the gold standard of encryption protocols for messaging services. This means that only the sender and recipient of a message can view its contents—WhatsApp, Signal, and other hosts/providers cannot access your messages. WhatsApp has built its service upon this encryption protocol, and interestingly, the Facebook-owned company utilises Signal’s (open source) end-to-end encryption protocol.
When it comes to Telegram, end-to-end encryption only applies to secret messages. This means that for other messages, such as public chats or group messages, Telegram can technically access your messages. This is because the messages are stored in Telegram’s servers, in the cloud, for which the company holds the encryption keys. Or, perhaps, other third parties that have the authority to compel the company to give access to its servers.
Telegram still utilises encryption, of course, so that third parties stalking your internet activity won’t be able to actually access the contents of your messages and calls. However, if Telegram’s servers were to be hacked at some point, access to the servers would mean access to user messages and data.
It’s worth noting that there is an upside to this for Telegram. The app isn’t exactly a direct alternative to WhatsApp—it offers a wide range of functionality, including large group chats, broadcast messages, cross-platform sync, and an easy way to transfer files between your devices. Cross-platform sync, in particular, isn’t available on Signal or WhatsApp; those apps use a workaround of sorts, where you can mirror/link your smartphone to a desktop.
How to use end-to-end encryption on Telegram
To ensure that your messages are protected by end-to-end encryption, you’ll need to use secret chats. Your messages in this mode cannot be forwarded in any situation, and when you delete messages in a conversation, the recipient/sender on the other side of the secret chat will be “ordered to delete them”. Meanwhile, you can also set your secret messages (and photos, files, and so on) to self-destruct—once they’ve been read.
Here’s how you start a secret chat:
- Open the profile of the user you want to contact. Tap on “…”, then “Start Secret Chat”.
You should also note that secret chats are device-specific, which means that the chat will only be available on the device that you started it with. Telegram’s cross-platform compatibility does not work with secret chats—which explains why folks over at WhatsApp and Signal do not have similar cross-platform compatibility.