PSA: Telegram Chats Aren’t End-to-End Encrypted by Default

PSA: Telegram Chats Aren’t End-to-End Encrypted by Default
A finger tapping a large Telegram app icon on a smartphone.

Telegram and Signal are widely popular privacy-focused messaging apps. However, the two apps have some big differences: While all messages sent via Signal are always end-to-end encrypted by default, Telegram messages aren’t. End-to-end encryption is an optional feature in Telegram.

Why End-to-End Encryption Matters

End-to-end encryption means that only the sender and the receiver of a message can see its contents. Not even the company running the server in the middle of the conversations can see the contents of the communications.

With Signal, all conversations are always end-to-end encrypted: The Signal Foundation can’t see the contents of the messages.

With Telegram, the company in charge of Telegram is technically capable of seeing the contents of the messages on its servers.

There is still some encryption in Telegram, of course: Encryption is used to transmit messages between your Telegram app, Telegram’s servers, and the other person’s Telegram app. Your internet service provider, network operator, and any third parties snooping on your internet activity can’t see the contents of your communications. (That’s a big improvement from traditional SMS, which lets your cellular provider see all your messages!)

If Telegram’s servers were hacked at some point in the future, for example, the attackers could see the contents of people’s Telegram conversations. However, if Signal’s servers were hacked, the attackers couldn’t see the conversations.

Telegram and Signal are very different in this way. Telegram is much more of a traditional messaging application. It syncs your chats between your devices and stores them in the cloud. If you don’t care about end-to-end encryption, that’s fine—and Telegram’s features can definitely be convenient.

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But if you are sending sensitive information—or if you just want to ensure that your conversations aren’t being snooped on—you should use end-to-end encryption.

How to End-to-End Encrypt Messages in Telegram

You don’t have to switch to Signal to use end-to-end encryption. It’s built right into Telegram. It’s just an optional feature that most people aren’t aware of.

In Telegram, only “secret chats” are encrypted. To use Telegram’s end-to-end encryption, you have to start a secret chat by tapping the person’s name, the “More” or menu button, and “Start Secret Chat.”

Secret chats appear separately from non-secret chats in Telegram’s chat list. For secret chats, Telegram shows the person’s name in green next to a green padlock icon. If you’re already talking to someone, you’ll see two separate conversations in your list.

A secret chat vs a not encrypted chat

In a secret chat, you can also enable a self-destruct timer for messages, ensuring that they’ll be deleted after a given amount of time. (Of course, the person you’re talking to can always take a screenshot of your conversation to preserve it if they want to.)

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Telegram Can’t Sync Its Secret Chats

Because of the end-to-end encryption, secret chats don’t sync between the Telegram app on multiple devices. A secret chat on one device stays on that device. So if you start a secret chat on your phone, you can’t continue that same secret chat on a tablet or computer. It stays on your phone.

Signal was designed from the ground up for end-to-end encryption, so it can optionally sync end-to-end encryption between your devices. Signal lets you link the app on your phone to another device like a Windows PC, Mac, or iPad. You can carry on your conversations between multiple devices without sacrificing end-to-end encryption, as you would have to do with Telegram.

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Telegram Can’t End-to-End Encrypt Group Messages

Telegram offers huge group chats with up to 200,000 people in a channel. However, in Telegram, only one-on-one conversations can be end-to-end encrypted with the “secret chats” feature.

Signal only supports up to 1000 people in a group chat. However, those group chats are always end-to-end encrypted. If you want end-to-end encrypted group chats with three or more people, Signal is the app to choose.

In other words, Telegram’s group chats are ideal for big public channels with thousands of people, while Signal’s group chat feature is ideal for private conversations with a smaller number of people.

Signal Is Best for End-to-End Encryption

Signal apps showing the conversation list and conversation.

Telegram is undoubtedly a polished messaging app with a slick interface. It’s great that it offers the option to have a secret chat with end-to-end encryption, too.

However, if you really care about end-to-end encryption, you should use Signal instead. In Signal, encryption isn’t an optional feature—it’s built into every single conversation that you have. All of Signal’s features—including message sync between devices and group chats—work with end-to-end encryption.

That ease of use is very helpful for getting people on board with secure, private chats. If you want to have end-to-end encrypted conversations with your friends, family members, or coworkers, it’s much easier for them to use Signal. The end-to-end encryption “just works” in all conversations, and you won’t have to explain the difference between secret chats and non-secret chats to them, as you would with Telegram.

Telegram and Signal Are Just Different

So which is better, Signal or Telegram? Well, they’re different. As of the start of 2021, Telegram clearly has a shinier, more polished interface, with prettier stickers and chat backgrounds. It’s also ideal for big public channels, making it almost a sort of social network.

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However, if you’re looking for end-to-end encryption so that the company operating the chat app can’t see your messages (and they can’t be accessed by hackers who breach the company’s servers), Signal is the best option.

Thankfully, Telegram at least offers end-to-end encryption as an option. If you ever need to transmit sensitive information (say, financial details), you can switch over to a secret chat for that.

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