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Table 1 Comparison of common internet call applications for remote research

From: ‘We need someone to deliver our voices’: reflections from conducting remote qualitative research in Syria

App Pros Cons
Facebook Messenger • Widely available/popular.
• Works with poor internet connection.
• Allows 50 people in a call (six visible on screen).
• End-to-end encryption and secret conversations feature to secure messages, but it must be activated before use.
• Messages can be set to self-destruction after a certain period of time (between five seconds and 24 h).
• Linked to personal Facebook profile, so not anonymous.
• The new desktop version only allows eight participants in a video call.
• A sizable security downside is that Messenger calls are not encrypted by default, unless you turn on the “secret conversation” feature. This means a copy of the message remains on Facebook’s servers if the feature is not activated.
• Facebook’ practices around privacy has been a concern.
Google Hangouts • Simple to use on both mobile and desktop.
• Requires a Google account to set up a meeting.
• Available free on both iOS and Android.
• It does encrypt hangouts conversations, but does not use end-to-end encryption — instead, messages are encrypted “in transit. (This means that they are only encrypted between the device and Google’s servers. Once they are on a server, Google has complete access to them).
• Allows for group up to 25 people.
• It does not need to be installed on devices, as sending over an invitation or link is enough.
• Google Hangouts is riddled with privacy and security concerns. Though the calls are encrypted, Google makes use of various user metadata whenever it can.
• Google Hangout is not as popular as other apps.
• Images sent via Hangouts are shared through public URLs, meaning that virtually anyone (who knows a thing or two about URLs) can view them.
Signal • The gold standard of messaging security app.
• One of the most secure messaging apps on the market, the company does not collect customer data.
• Messages and voice and video calls are end-to-end encrypted by default. Not even the owner company can decrypt the messages.
• Signal is available for Android and iOS mobile devices.
• It allows to make both sent and received messages “disappear” after a certain amount of time has elapsed.
• The app also allows a password to lock it.
• Not widely used
• Currently, video calls are only one-on-one.
• Only available on mobiles.
Skype • Skype is widely compatible and pre-installed on some computers.
• You get maximum 4 h/ session for free and maximum video meeting size of 50 people.
• Encryption is automatically activated when calling.
• There is a version for business called Skype Business which is pretty cheap, and you get 250 video meeting slots and extra security.
• Not widely used in Syria.
• Works poorly with poor internet.
• Works poorly on mobile phones.
• Skype is owned by Microsoft, which is rumoured to have collaborated with intelligence agencies to circumvent user privacy.
• When using regular telephone calls with Skype (where you do have to pay normal calling fees to call actual mobile or landline phones), the encryption doesn’t apply.
Telegram • End-to-end encryption with a feature called “Secret Chat” to protect messages.
• Passcode Lock, a four-digit code to prevent intruders from accessing the messages.
• Self-destructing messages,
(for Secret Chats only) that will delete private text messages and media within a pre-set time limit.
• Remote logout, because it offers log into from numerous devices at the same time (web, PC, tablet, smartphone, etc.), so the app offers the ability to log out of other sessions from the current device is used through the Settings menu.
• Account self-destruct, an inactive account for a certain amount of time (six months being the default) with completely wiping clean all of the messages and media.
• Not widely used.
• The encryption feature is not default; it must be turned on manually before using.
WhatsApp • Most used app in Syria/popular.
• Allows for groups of up to eight people.
• WhatsApp Voice and video calls and messages are end-to-end encrypted by default, which increased security.
• WhatsApp also has a “Verify Security Code” screen in the contact info screen that allows the user to confirm that the calls and messages are end-to-end encrypted.
• It is available free on both iPhone and Android.
• The only time of which the message is kept on a WhatsApp server is the period after sending it and before it is delivered to the receiver. If it cannot be delivered for some reason, then the message will be deleted from the server after 30 days.
• Linked to mobile number, potentially hindering security.
• Used for personal communication so potentially less anonymous (e.g. if profile picture used).
• Only allows up to four people in a group video chat.
• Though content is encrypted, WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, a company which makes excessive use of user data.
Zoom • Widely used globally in the current COVID19 epidemic.
• Allows for groups of up to 50 people with screen sharing and breakout rooms.
• It has a built-in recording feature.
• Zoom allows the most participants of any; on a free and basic paid plan, up to 1000 people can join a single call.
• Allows scheduling meetings ahead of time.
• There is a “Waiting Room” feature, so the meeting’s host can see potential participants before they join the meeting.
• It does not need to be installed, sharing the 10-digit personal meeting ID or send over a Zoom link is enough.
• Still relatively new and unfamiliar.
• Not the simplest service to use; free version is limited to 40 min.
• More computer friendly than phone friendly.
• Potential security issues. Zoom’s encryption was discovered to not be as strong as expected.
• Interlopers were also found disturbing – or “Zoom-bombing” – private meetings. However, this has been quickly tackled by requiring passwords for every meeting and turning on the Waiting Room feature by default.
  1. Adapted from: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/best-video-conference-apps; https://www.avg.com/en/signal/pros-and-cons-of-video-chat-apps; https://www.avg.com/en/signal/secure-message-apps (Accessed 20 October 2020)