2021 Review: Wire Messenger

What is Wire & Why Do You Need It?

Wire is an end-to-end encrypted (E2EE) messenger available on Linux, Mac, Windows, Android, and iOS. I have long touted the need for E2EE in your daily communication platform for both practical and philosophical reasons. For practical reasons, it can protect sensitive communications like financial discussions, upcoming plans, and NSFW pics/texts if that’s your thing. For philosophical reasons, I think that everyone should use encryption whenever possible to normalize it and make mass surveillance less feasible/practical/economical. I’ve gotten to the point where encryption is such a normal part of my life that I feel uncomfortable talking about serious subjects on unencrypted channels these days.

The Good

Wire has a lot of valuable features. In addition to the obvious things that make it recommended by this site such as being open source and audited, one major advantage of Wire is that it is username based. You can sign up entirely anonymously by signing up on desktop, using a VPN (or Tor), and using a throwaway email. Even without hardcore anonymous signup, you can still retain a great deal of privacy by using a forwarding email address and not submitting a phone number or real name. And because you pick a username, that means you can privately communicate with others without having to provide any personal information like a phone number to that person. You can also have up to three accounts on a single device, allowing you to easily compartmentalize work and personal life.

According to their privacy policy, Wire does not retain any encryption keys, and uses TLS to encrypt metadata when possible. They claim not to retain copies of encrypted data after it has been delivered, and to only keep technical logs for 72 hours for the purposes of troubleshooting and abuse-prevention. If I remember correctly, analytics were opt-in (not on by default) when I signed up for an account.

Ultimately, I think Wire’s biggest features are the universal availability in terms of devices and the support of usernames. These two features alone make it a powerful choice worth considering.

The Bad

However, Wire is not without its drawbacks. The privacy policy I linked doesn’t contain any information about the data they collect, be it detailed or vague. For example, they just say they collect “technical data” in the logs I mentioned before. It’s also worth noting that their exact jurisdiction is fuzzy: Wire itself is based in Switzerland, but the holding company that “owns” them for funding purposes is based in Germany – which is largely considered a country with strong consumer privacy laws, but they have a pretty eager history with surveillance.

Perhaps the single biggest drawback I noticed right away was how slow it is. Wire is very slow. I can’t emphasize that enough. Not just in the sending/receiving of messages but just in the general operation. Without dating myself too much, I grew up in the dial-up days. I know what slow internet and slow devices are like. Wire isn’t that slow by comparison, but by modern standards it is very slow. Loading new pages, sending a message, all of that stuff takes a good second or two, sometimes three.

It’s also relatively lacking in features. Wire’s business model is to focus on companies, so it makes sense they wouldn’t have all the trappings that other messengers like Telegram, WhatsApp, and Signal have adopted in order to reel in the casual user, but even so it was a huge culture shock moving from Signal to Wire while testing for this review. Group chats are a thing, and so are voice and video calls, but no voice messages, GIF support is clunky at best, and no ability to quote and reply to specific messages (that last one does seem a little weird even for Wire – I know firsthand that group workplace chats can get very confusing very fast without that ability).

Last but not least, it’s important to know what got Wire booted from Privacy Guides in the first place: changing the privacy policy without announcing it. While this is common for many services, it’s troubling for privacy- and security-advocating services in particular. Based on the most recent privacy policy I read, this still seems to be their practice. (It’s worth noting that this blog cites an article that says Wire stores unencrypted metadata. I was unable to confirm if this is still true, and as I mentioned Wire’s own privacy policy is quite vague on what constitutes a “technical log.”)

Oh, and it’s also worth noting that Wire is centralized. A premium feature does allow it to be federated for enterprises, but for the average free user, the main centralized server is your only choice.

Conclusion

Wire is far from perfect, but to be honest there is no perfect messenger in the privacy space. The ones that are user-friendly usually have glaring flaws, and the ones that are almost perfect are usually nightmarish to implement and/or use. Wire is definitely not for everybody, however I think it offers some powerful advantages – much of the metadata collection can be outsmarted with a simple VPN and a forwarding email address (and by using it on desktop only, if your threat model is that severe) – and the ability to have a username instead of a phone number is something that can’t be discredited. However, I don’t think Wire is right for everyone. Again, while it is user-friendly it’s also missing a lot of mainstream features that you would find in something like Signal that you might be able to use to lure in your non-privacy-centric friends, and even services like Matrix offer a plethora of features alongside decentralization. Ultimately I think Wire might be a good trade-off between Matrix and Signal: a little more user-friendly than Matrix, but doesn’t require a mobile device like Signal does. Ultimately, as always, it depends on your needs and threat model.

You can learn more and download Wire here.

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.org. You can also get daily privacy news updates at @thenewoil@freeradical.zone or support my work in a variety of ways here.