If you’re like most people, until recently you didn’t think twice about who might be looking before you sent a text message or placed a call with your mobile phone.
Our mobile devices store tons of personal information—and it’s becoming clear that this information might not be as private as we thought.
Thanks to secure messaging apps, it’s easy to be sure that your pictures, text messages and calls aren’t being collected by some nasty group of hackers or a rogue government agency.
But how do you know which private messaging apps to trust?
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated for 2021
Signal Editor's Pick
Recommended by Edward Snowden, Signal makes our list thanks to its robust verification options and the ability to message anyone on your contact list—not just people who have the app. However, it’s important to note that secure messaging encryption only works with other Signal users.
You must assign your phone number to the app, so it’s not as anonymous as other options. But, the features and design make it a perfect replacement for your default messaging app.
You can enable notifications to alert you any time the unique identifier for your contacts change. This helps verify your contacts to be sure no one intercepts your messages. Signal also includes simple passphrase verification using words generated on the screen should you need to secure voice calls.
Finally, as an open-source project, advanced users can audit the code and verify that features work as advertised. No worries about advertisements, tracking or corporate agendas.
Since it's release, the app has added a number of awesome features, including message reactions, encrypted group video chat, voice messages, and GIF support. This means it's no longer just a basic communications platform but closer to the full-featured messenger experience so many people expect these days.
Wickr offers a simple, clean interface with features we couldn’t find in other apps. Messages self-destruct, making it easy to be sure that your personal information doesn’t linger on other devices. Metadata scrubbing gets rid of any potentially identifiable information embedded in your messages and shared media. Depending on the media, this might include sensitive information, such as location, date or device model. Your screen name is anonymous—unlike many other secure messaging apps—making it easy to create burner IDs. Like any standard messaging app, you can share voice messages, videos and images.
Wickr focuses on transparency and privacy. Want the fine print? Wickr outlines their privacy details here .
Telegram is one of the most feature-rich secure messaging apps on our lists. It's also one of the few with support for Windows, MacOS, and Linux. This means you can seamlessly transition from the office to your phone to a gaming session and keep the conversation rolling without having to constantly peek at your phone.
The app also supports secret chats with self-destructing messages, password locks, and other local security options on top of the high-grade encryption and cloud-based security already on offer.
If you don't need to message using your phone number and your friends and family are willing to sign up for Telegram to communicate, it's a solid platform.
Dust is an interesting option. By default, it deletes messages after 24 hours. Alongside military-grade end-to-end encryption, this means that most messages should be difficult to intercept and they won't sit around on your phone long waiting to be discovered.
Where it really differentiates itself is the ability to delete the messages from the receiving device as well. Most apps require you to either use disappearing messages or accept that messages on the other end will exist until they are deleted by the recipient. But with Dust, you can delete a message manually before the 24-hour window is up if you wish!
Price: Free with In-App Purchases
Element (formerly Riot.im)
Element (previously known as Riot.im) takes a different approach to security than most of the options in this round-up. For this reason, it's perhaps the future of secure messaging. While it offers encryption, video chat, voice-over-IP calling, screen streaming, and more, it does everything using a decentralized network. This means there's no single server that stores or processes your encrypted messages. It's a cool concept and you can read more about the geekier side of how it all works at Matrix.org.
Unfortunately, this level of cutting-edge security means it's not quite the most user-friendly option on our list. So you probably won't be asking grandma to join you on Element any time soon. But if you're comfortable with technology basics or you're looking to secure your business communications, remote learning chats, or want a self-hosted secure messaging option, Element is very interesting.
Price: Free with In-App Purchases
Wire Secure Messenger
With remote work and learning on the rise, sometimes messaging isn't about fun or family. Wire Secure Messenger is a productivity-focused secure messaging solution. The free version offers everything you'd find in most secure messaging apps -- encrypted messages, voice messaging, images, emotes, video chat, and rich link embeds.
But there is also a business and enterprise tier of Wire available that offers collaboration features, project management, and a bounty of certifications to provide accountability, transparency, and trust for more critical communications. Of course, this comes at a fee, but for privacy-focuses businesses or groups, it's an excellent option that goes above and beyond the typical consumer-grade solution.
Price: Free with paid Business and Enterprise tiers
Previous Picks Included: WhatsApp, Zom, Gliph.
What We Considered
We feel that securing your personal communications shouldn’t feel geeky or complicated. If it’s a pain to use, you won’t want to use it. But you’ll also want to know you can trust the company transmitting your data.
To address these concerns, we chose our picks based on:
- Security methods
- Ease of use
- Device support
- Transparency of the app developers
We feel this offered a balance of usability and dependability perfect for everyday use.
What About Secret Texting Apps?
If you're looking for a way to keep your messages, pictures, and other media private and safe from nosey friends or housemates, you can opt for apps with secret messaging capabilities. Many of the above picks work well for that as well.
- Signal allows you to set a password on the app.
- Wickr Me can auto-delete messages after a specified period.
But if you're looking for something even more discrete, consider an app like CoverMe.
You can send self-destructing messages, remotely wipe the messages you sent to others, and even disguise the app as a news reading app.
If you're trying to protect files you're sending back and forth -- such as pictures -- there's a file vault that includes password protection as well. The decoy password feature lets you enter a fake password and display an empty vault if you're concerned someone might force you to sign in to the vault and share your files.
On the private calling app front, you'll find password protection for answering CoverMe calls and a private 2nd phone number that lets you choose exactly who knows the number and -- more importantly -- who doesn't.
All of these features also include full end-to-end encryption and CoverMe says they store nothing on their own servers once the message is delivered or your call is complete.
Secure messaging apps are only useful if the people you know also use them. For this reason, our Editor's Pick for Best Secure Messaging App in 2021 goes to Signal.
It’s simple to use, offers everything you need in a private text messaging app and still lets you send unsecure messages to the rest of your contacts. So if you can't get friends or family to sign-up you won't have to bounce between multiple apps to stay in touch.
Better still, it’s an open-source project, so there’s always people improving features and checking to be sure the app remains secure.
If you don't mind needing to sign up for a service -- or want to avoid the privacy concerns of using your mobile number to identify your account -- Telegram is an excellent alternative that rivals even the most full-featured messaging apps today.
If you use one of these apps, be sure to share this post with your family and friends so they can encrypt their calls and messages too!
P.S. While these apps are great for securing your messaging and calling, they do nothing for the rest of the data transmitted by your phone—such as when you browse the web or play online games. If you’re looking for additional ways to secure your phone, get yourself set up with a Virtual Private Network (VPN)!