The perfect video chat app doesn’t exist

The coronavirus crisis, with all its ‘working from home’ and social distancing recommendations, has probably transformed your social life into a succession of video chats. Your boss, your doctor, your family, your friends, they all want to see your face and tech is here to help. Or is it?

It’s easy to get lost with so many video chat apps available, but it’s important to know that not all video chat apps are created equal. As it turns out, just a few of them are engineered with your privacy in mind. The Mozilla Foundation has published a helpful report that rates the security of the most popular video chat apps out there.

During recent years, the tech industry has heard loud and clear that people value their privacy. Privacy is the product. We know that our browsing habits, text messages, social media posts, and emails are being parsed to target us with advertisements (or worse), but tech companies hardly sell any service today without talking about how they built it with privacy in mind. That’s why end-to-end encryption —a system where only the communicating users can read the content and the metadata of the messages— is one of the most sought-after features a chatting app can have.

Video chatting is not a new thing, but today this type of communication is enjoying a renaissance. Many people are using video chat apps for the first time, without even thinking of how it affects their privacy. That’s why it’s so important to choose the right app, so that tech companies keep hearing that same message we have been chanting: privacy cannot be an opt-in feature or an afterthought.

You might think “I don’t care if a company uses my conversations to target me with ads”, but what if that same company used tracking tools to collect your data across third-party apps and sites as well? That’s the case for Houseparty, one of the popular apps in the video chatting space.

Unfortunately, most of the big tech players offer solutions without end-to-end encryption. Facebook Messenger, Microsoft Teams and Skype do not use end-to-end encryption by default, whereas WhatsApp and Apple’s FaceTime do. Are these the best options then? Not so fast! WhatsApp only supports making video calls from its phone app, and it shares your personal information (just not the calls or messages content) with third-party partners for operating and advertising purposes. When it comes to Apple, not everyone has an iOS or Mac device to use FaceTime, so compatibility can be a problem. It’s also sad to see Skype as the underdog here – it used to be the de facto tool for online video calls.

There are also newcomers to consider: Zoom is the new king of video call apps thanks to its speed, ease of use (people can join a call without an account), and a UI capable of accommodating tens of people on a single screen. Zoom is also famous because of its privacy and security concerns, as the Mozilla report mentions, “everything ranging from exploits that would let bad guys download videos stored in the cloud, to leaking users’ data, to a lawsuit that was filed because Facebook was allowed to “eavesdrop” on Zoom users’ personal data.

Zoom’s gallery view is helpful on video calls with a lot of participants

Google continues to struggle to position and properly market its messaging apps, especially after so many rebrandings and short-lived attempts to gain a dominant position in the video-calling ecosystem. If you can convince people to use it, Duo is the only messaging app from Google that uses end-to-end encryption. But if you prefer convenience, Google Meet just started rolling out its integration with Gmail.

Google is integrating Meet and Chat, the evolution of Hangouts, with Gmail

Going back to Facebook, their privacy policy states they can use the camera feature on Messenger to collect data on you, which should be a big deterrent for most users. Nonetheless, if we forget about these privacy issues for a second, we may talk about the new Rooms feature —Facebook’s response to Zoom— which allows users to invite anyone to join their video call, even if they don’t have a Facebook account. The idea of an “open room” where friends can drop in and out anytime without having to start a new call every time sounds appealing. It’s a pity that each Room comes with an Orwellian policy attached.

Facebook prominently features the new Rooms feature on their main app

After covering all the big tech companies, it’s worth mentioning that there are other safer and privacy-aware options available. Signal, for example, is a free, open source, privacy-focused messaging app with end-to-end encryption. They don’t show ads, track or capture your data in any way. Unfortunately, the video chat feature is only available on mobile devices.

Now, are you as confused as you were before reading this article? At the end of the day, choosing a video chat app boils down to deciding what’s more important to you: convenience at the expense of your privacy, or more safety at the expense of an uphill battle to get your family and friends to use an app of your choosing. As they say, “pick your poison”.

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Photos by Dylan Ferreira on Unsplash, Zoom, Google and Facebook

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