Real-Time Communication

We only recommend messengers that support strong end-to-end encryption (E2EE) and have been been independently audited to ensure their cryptography works as intended. The selection listed here is free and open-source software, ensuring that the code can be verified by experts now and in the future.

Encrypted Instant Messengers

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Signal

Centralized VoIP

Signal is a mobile app developed by Signal Messenger LLC. The app provides instant messaging, as well as voice and video calling.

All communications are E2EE. Contact lists are encrypted using your login PIN and the server does not have access to it. Personal profiles are also encrypted and only shared with contacts who add you.

Signal has minimal metadata when Sealed Sender is enabled. The sender address is encrypted along with the message body, and only the recipient address is visible to the server.

Notes

Signal requires your phone number as a personal identifier.

Sealed Sender is only enabled for users on your contact list but can be enabled for all recipients with the increased risk of receiving spam.

Technical information

The protocol was independently audited in 2016. The specification for the Signal protocol can be founded in their documentation.

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Element

Federated P2P VoIP

Element is the reference client for the Matrix protocol, an open standard for secure decentralized real-time communication.

Messages and files shared in private rooms (those which require an invite) are by default E2EE as are 1 to 1 voice and video calls.

Notes

Profile pictures, reactions, and nicknames are not encrypted.

Group voice and video calls are not E2EE, and use Jitsi, but this is expected to change with Native Group VoIP Signalling. Group calls have no authentication currently, meaning that non room participants can also join the calls. We recommend that you do not use this feature for private meetings.

When using element-web, you must trust the server hosting the Element client. If your threat model requires stronger protection then use a desktop or mobile client instead.

Technical information

The protocol was independently audited in 2016. The specification for the Matrix protocol can be found in their documentation. The Olm cryptographic ratchet used by Matrix is an implementation of Signal’s Double Ratchet algorithm.

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Briar

P2P Anonymous Routing

Briar is an encrypted instant messenger that connects to other clients using the Tor Network. Briar can also connect via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth when in local proximity. Briar’s local mesh mode can be useful when internet availability is a problem.

Notes

To add a contact on Briar, you must both add each other first. You can either exchange briar:// links or scan a contact’s QR code if they are nearby.

Technical information

The client software was independently audited and the anonymous routing protocol uses the Tor network which has also been audited.

Briar has a fully published specification.

Briar supports perfect forward secrecy by using the Bramble Handshake and Transport protocol.

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Session

Anonymous Routing

Session is an encrypted instant messenger that uses three random service nodes to route messages anonymously on the Oxen Network.

Session allows for E2EE in one-to-one or closed rooms that allow up to 100 members.

Open rooms have no restriction on the number of members, but anyone can join.

Notes

Session does not support forward secrecy. The key pair for each conversation is not rotated.

Technical information

Session was independently audited in 2020. The protocol is described in a whitepaper.

Types of communication networks

There are several network architectures commonly used to relay messages between users. These networks can provide different different privacy guarantees, which is why it's worth considering your threat model when making a decision about which app to use.

Centralized

Centralized network

Centralized messengers are those where all participants are on the same server or network of servers controlled by the same organization.

Some self-hosted messengers allow you to set up your own server. Self-hosting can provide additional privacy guarantees such as no usage logs or limited access to metadata (data about who is talking to whom etc). Self-hosted centralized messengers are isolated and everyone must be on the same server to communicate.

Advantages

  • New features and changes can be implemented more quickly.
  • Easier to get started with and to find contacts.
  • Most mature and stable features ecosystems, as they are easier to program in a centralized software.
  • Privacy issues may be reduced when you trust a server that you're self-hosting.

Disadvantages

  • Can include restricted control or access. This can include things like:
    • Being forbidden from connecting third-party clients to the centralized network that might provide for greater customization or better user experience. Often defined in Terms and Conditions of usage.
    • Poor or no documentation for third-party developers.
  • The ownership, privacy policy, and operations of the service can change easily when a single entity controls it, potentially compromising the service later on.
  • Self hosting requires effort and knowledge of how to set up a service.

Federated

Decentralized network

Federated messengers use multiple, independent, decentralized servers that are able to talk to each other (email is one example of a federated service). Federation allows system administrators to control their own server and still be a part of the larger communications network.

When self-hosted, users of a federated server can discover and communicate with users of other servers, although some servers may choose to remain private by being non-federated (e.g., work team server).

Advantages

  • Allows for greater control over your own data when running your own server.
  • Allows you to choose who to trust your data with by choosing between multiple "public" servers.
  • Often allows for third party clients which can provide a more native, customized, or accessible experience.
  • Server software can be verified that it matches public source code, assuming you have access to the server or you trust the person who does (e.g., a family member)

Disadvantages

  • Adding new features is more complex, because these features need to be standardized and tested to ensure they work with all servers on the network.
  • Due to the previous point, features can be lacking, or incomplete or working in unexpected ways compared to centralized platforms, such as message relay when offline or message deletion.
  • Some metadata may be available (e.g., information like "who is talking to whom," but not actual message content if E2EE is used).
  • Federated servers generally require trusting your server's administrator. They may be a hobbyist or otherwise not a "security professional," and may not serve standard documents like a privacy policy or terms of service detailing how your data is utilized.
  • Server administrators sometimes choose to block other servers, which are a source of unmoderated abuse or break general rules of accepted behavior. This will hinder your ability to communicate with users on those servers.

Peer-to-Peer (P2P)

Distributed network Peer-to-peer messengers connect to a distributed network of nodes to relay messages to the recipient without a third-party server. Clients (peers) usually find each other through the use of a distributed computing network. Examples of this include DHT (distributed hash table) (used with technologies like torrents and IPFS, for example). Another approach is proximity based networks, where a connection is established over WiFi or Bluetooth (for example, Briar or the Scuttlebutt social network protocol). Once a peer has found a route to its contact via any of these methods, a direct connection between them is made. Although messages are usually encrypted, an observer can still deduce the location and identity of the sender and recipient.

P2P networks do not use servers, as users communicate directly between each others, and hence cannot be self-hosted. However, some additional services may rely on centralized servers, such as users discovery or offline messages relaying, which can benefit from self-hosting.

Advantages

  • Minimal information is exposed to third parties.
  • Modern P2P platforms implement end-to-end encryption by default. There are no servers that could potentially intercept and decrypt your transmissions, unlike centralized and federated models.

Disadvantages

  • Reduced feature set:
    • Messages can only be sent when both peers are online, however, your client may store messages locally to wait for the contact to return online.
    • Generally increases battery usage on mobile devices, because the client must stay connected to the distributed network to learn about who is online.
    • Some common messenger features may not be implemented or incompletely, such as message deletion.
  • Your IP address and that of the contacts you're communicating with may be exposed if you do not use the software in conjunction with a VPN or self contained network, such as Tor or I2P. Many countries have some form of mass surveillance and/or metadata retention.

Anonymous Routing

Anonymous routing network A messenger using anonymous routing hides either the identity of the sender, the receiver, or evidence that they have been communicating. Ideally, a messenger should hide all three.

There are many different ways to implement anonymous routing. One of the most famous is onion routing (e.g., Tor), which communicates encrypted messages through a virtual overlay network that hides the location of each node as well as the recipient and sender of each message. The sender and recipient never interact directly, and only meet through a secret rendezvous node, so that there is no leak of IP addresses nor physical location. Nodes cannot decrypt messages nor the final destination, only the recipient can. Each intermediary node can only decrypt a part that indicates where to send the still encrypted message next, until it arrives at the recipient who can fully decrypt it, hence the "onion layers".

Self-hosting a node in an anonymous routing network does not provide the hoster with additional privacy benefits, but rather contributes to the whole network's resilience against identification attacks for everyone's benefit.

Advantages

  • Minimal to no information is exposed to other parties.
  • Messages can be relayed in a decentralized manner even if one of the parties is offline.

Disadvantages

  • Slow message propagation.
  • Often limited to fewer media types, mostly text since the network is slow.
  • Less reliable if nodes are selected by randomized routing, some nodes may be very far from the sender and receiver, adding latency or even failing to transmit messages if one of the nodes goes offline.
  • More complex to get started as the creation and secured backup of a cryptographic private key is required.
  • Just like other decentralized platforms, adding features is more complex for developers than on a centralized platform, hence features may be lacking or incompletely implemented, such as offline message relaying or message deletion.

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