Privacy-Respecting Video Chat Apps for the Holidays
Hopefully the end is in sight for the COVID-19 pandemic. In my state, the vaccines arrived on Monday. I know it’s still going to be a months-long process, and I’m not even going to comment on how politics has shaped the issue. The point being, while the end may be near, it definitely won’t be here before Christmas and New Years. As such, many people will be spending this year alone, isolated away from family members who are elderly, immuno-compromised, or otherwise at risk just to play it safe. But that’s no excuse not to literally see your family. So this year, I explore some of the best privacy-respecting options for video chat that can help you and your family stay a little better connected this year, even from a distance. This listed is presented in alphabetical order, not any sort of order of superiority.
Jitsi gained almost overnight popularity in the privacy community around the start of the pandemic as an open-source, privacy-respecting alternative to Zoom. Jitsi offers lobbies and password-protected rooms, as well as end-to-end encryption. You can self-host your own instance or use the default instance (or you can use any other publicly-available instance – shoutout to The Calyx Institute – but the default public instance is fine for most people). My favorite feature of Jitsi is that it offers the ability to share your screen with audio AND your camera and audio at the same time. So Jitsi offers a great way to stream a movie with family while still being able to communicate. Oh and the best part? No app or account needed. You can use it straight from your browser. I'm gonna be honest: for 90% of people, Jitsi is going to be your best, easiest, and most feature-rich option. However, other options do exist.
Honorable Mention: Brave Together
I’m still very much on the fence when it comes to Brave. On the one hand, the company is a for-profit that has done some things in the past that I personally find very intentionally malicious and unethical. On the other hand, they are really on the bleeding edge of privacy and security features for a browser, and they’re basically a “set it and forget it” tool. In recent weeks, I’ve come to compromise on this by saying “Brave is best for non-tech people who care about their privacy but REALLY don’t trust themselves with even the basics.” As such, it’s worth mentioning that Brave comes prepackaged with Jitsi built into the browser, able to host or join a Jitsi meeting with just a few short keystrokes. Personally I don’t think this counts as a reason to use Brave, given that Jitsi doesn’t require any sort of app or account to begin with, but if you already have a loved one using Brave, this might be an easy way to get them to the video call.
MySudo (iOS Only)
MySudo is one of those apps I personally can’t live without. It’s not open source, which is a huge bummer, but it allows you to create up to 9 phone numbers (with email addresses) that are capable of supporting both phone calls and text messages. This app is essential to me in my personal life, allowing me to compartmentalize banking, work, personal, online selling, etc. These features cost money, but fortunately there are other features that don’t cost money: contacting other users. If you’re an iOS user, MySudo is now allowing group video calling of up to 5 users. I expect the feature will roll out to Android in the future. Anonyome seems to focus on iOS then Android. Even if your entire family isn’t using iPhone, MySudo still offers unlimited, free, end-to-end encrypted calls and texts between MySudo users. It’s worth checking into.
Signal, one of the golden standards of secure communication in the privacy and security community, offers some of the best encryption the world has to offer. The app is regularly used by politicians and law enforcement in the US, the entire EU Commission, and the encryption itself has been integrated into WhatsApp, Facebook Secret Messages, Skype Private Conversations, and Google’s new Android competitor to iMessage, as well as numerous other high-profile messengers. This year, Signal finally rolled out the ability to use video on desktop and just this month rolled out the ability to have group calls of up to five people. The downside to Signal is that it currently does require your phone number, but since the context of this blog post is talking to family members, I suspect that probably won’t be a huge problem for most of my readers.
Honorable Mention: Apple's Facetime
Let's be 100% honest: Apple is not a privacy-friendly company. They claim they are, and they are definitely a step above Android. Apple has repeatedly fought back on creating encryption backdoors for the FBI, and many cybersecurity experts claim that Apple is more private because they sell hardware at a premium rather than selling your data. Having said that, Apple has repeatedly been caught in numerous privacy scandals, and they still record far more data than necessary. Point blank: I think literally any other suggestion in this blog post would be better than using an Apple app. Having said that, Apple's Facetime communications are end-to-end encrypted. If you have a wide level of Apple usage in your family, I would recommend using Facetime over Zoom, Skype, Facebook, Portal, or any of the other mainstream video chat apps out there. Once again, I still think you'll get better protection by using Jitsi or Signal, but if your family refuses to use those and does have Apple products, I think Facetime is the lesser evil. (Although, personal opinion, if your family refuses to use Jitsi they're really not even trying and you should reconsider your relationship with them. But this is a data privacy site, not a family relationship site, so enough on that.)
Hopefully this post helps you find a way to keep in touch with your loved ones this year as the world continues to grapple with the pandemic. Hopefully next year things won't be so dire and we can all move back to in-person meetings. Until then, stay safe and stay connected – why not at the same time?
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