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Friday, 13 October 2017 | MYT 9:00 AM

You need to know this before installing a messenger app

The SMS text message is practically dead, and we're living in the age of the messenger app. Many smartphone users today never use SMS messaging, but prefer to stay in touch with friends and family using apps such as Hoccer, Signal, Threema, Viber, WhatsApp and Wire.

But to use these apps blindly is not a good idea. They differ significantly in the level of security they offer, for example.

"In their functions, the messengers are all quite similar," says Christine Steffen from the North Rhine-Westphalia Consumer Centre in Germany. "As a rule, text and voice messages, pictures or other file formats can be sent."

There may be restrictions on the maximum file size allowed. For example, Skype can deal with files up to 300 megabytes in size, while WhatsApp can only handle around 100 MB. In some cases, photos and videos are compressed.

Group text chats are a standard feature among all the apps - even those that started out with a focus on video, such as Skype.

But are the photos and private information you send on messenger apps secure? What is sent via a messenger is not always protected from the prying eyes of third parties.

Data protection violations cannot be ruled out, according to a spokesperson for Germany's Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information. For that reason, users should carefully consider what data they send using these apps.

End-to-end encryption is a good way to keep your data secure, though its availability is patchy. Some apps require you to activate end-to-end encryption for each chat, while others don't offer it at all.

Other encryption methods are not necessarily secure. Often, the provider uses a kind of general key which it or a third party can use to decipher communication between users.

However, providers are generally more interested in connection data and contacts than in the content of messages. WhatsApp, for example, reserves the right to access the contacts stored on users' smartphones.

"This allows the provider to create usage profiles that show who communicates with whom and how often," Steffen says. Such data can be useful for advertising purposes.

However they choose to communicate, users should fully inform themselves of how their data will be encrypted, how the app will access their contacts and how user behaviour is analysed before they install a messenger app.

And finally, it's best to deactivate read receipts and other functions that track activity in the app's settings, Steffen advises.— dpa