Communication without borders

The Internet has torn down communication borders, in spite of the efforts of governments. It’s easy to send an email message to or have a voice conversation with someone in a distant country. It costs next to nothing to make an international Skype call. Compare that to 1927, when a three-minute call from New York to London cost $75 in much bigger dollars than today’s. If you choose the right messaging system, you get the benefit of privacy. It’s extremely difficult for anyone to eavesdrop on your communications.

The New York Times tells us that millions of people who leave for a new country use WhatsApp to keep in touch with their families and friends back home. Even people with limited assets can get a cheap smartphone and install a messaging app on it.

Cheap, secure communication is a threat to people who like to control other people, so they try to stop it or find ways to violate its privacy. Senator Tom Cotton claims that WhatsApp facilitates terrorism. Brazilian courts have ordered nationwide bans on WhatsApp on several occasions. One judge reportedly took offense that Facebook treated Brazil as a “banana republic.” (If you act like one, what do you expect?) The bans have been part of attempts to force Facebook to turn over user information.

WhatsApp provides good security. Messages are encrypted from end to end, and Facebook can’t decrypt them even if it wants to (or a court tries to force it to). However, there are limitations to its security:

  • Spyware covertly installed on a device at either end can eavesdrop on the conversation.
  • It may be possible to recover information from a phone after seizing it. In some places, you can be forced to unlock your phone.
  • WhatsApp tracks metadata, so a court could require Facebook to hand over information about what phone numbers you’ve been communicating with.

Picture of phone with Signal image from WhisperSystems.orgAn alternative to WhatsApp is Signal, from Open Whisper Systems. It has Edward Snowden’s endorsement, and many security experts consider it safer than WhatsApp. Its code is open source. According to the privacy policy, the information associated with a call “is only kept as long as necessary to place each call or transmit each message, and is not used for any other purpose.” WhatsApp, incidentally, uses Signal’s protocol.

Don’t confuse Open Whisper Systems or Signal with Whisper, which is an anonymous social media application from a different company.

Another option is ChatSecure, which describes itself as a “secure messenger for iOS.” There used to be an Android version, but it’s no longer maintained, and the website recommends not using it any more.

With any messaging application, make sure you know whom you’re talking with. The applications confirm that the user has access to the phone number on the account, but impersonation is still very possible. Consider using an additional means of confirmation if you’re dealing in sensitive information, and be careful if you get messages that aren’t characteristic of your correspondent.

Other than that, enjoy your freedom to communicate!

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Published by

Gary McGath

I am a freelance writer, author of the books _Files that Last_ and _Tomorrow's Songs Today_, with a strong background in software development, file formats, and digital preservation.

2 thoughts on “Communication without borders”

  1. can you give links and quotes about the security experts who endorse Signal? I don’t consider Snowden a reliable authority since owes Russia quite a large debt by all accounts, possibly including his continued existence.

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