In the crowded world of encrypted messaging apps, few tools stand out.
Wire gives you encrypted voice calls, video calls, and messaging. It uses wireless data (through a mobile plan or wi-fi), which can help save money on phone calls and SMS charges. This is great for those of us who want to call or text our friends without eating up an expensive phone plan. It also supports most major operating systems.
On Wire, conversations are end-to-end encrypted, meaning that no one except the conversational participants can read the messages. It’s open source, meaning that its code is publicly viewable. This also means it can be examined for security holes. After responding to security audits, the team has developed a fairly hardened, yet simple messenger that continues to improve.
Competitive messaging apps with similar encryption, such as Signal and WhatsApp, require users to register for the service with a phone number. And while there are workarounds, this move has serious privacy implications for those who prefer not to give away a personal number before you can chat. On Wire, you can simply register with an email.
While Wire has strong encryption and robust features, the service collects and retains a lot of metadata — information about your conversations, such as your contacts, and who spoke to whom. Compare this to the more conservative Signal app. And because it has a web interface, we should take extra precautions to make sure no one else can log in.
Getting started with Wire
When you first launch the app on your phone, it will ask you to register a personal account by verifying your phone number.
iPhone users: Type in your number and click the arrow button. You will receive a verification code through SMS text message. Type this code into the app, and click the forward button again. Continue through the welcome screen.
Android users: Type in your number and click the arrow. Wait for the app to verify your phone number.
If you don’t want to use your phone number, you can instead navigate to app.wire.com to create an account. Click “Create an account” and then type in your desired email and password. You will receive a confirmation email. Type in the code to complete your registration.
After registering an account, you can choose your username, display name, and even a custom profile photo. You can always change them later.
After you’re all set up, you will land on your “conversations” homepage.
Using the icon in the bottom corner, you can add new people to your Wire contact list by importing other Wire users from your phone contact list or by searching and inviting a user to a conversation.
After clicking on the person you want to talk to, click “open” to start a conversation with your new contact.
Once you join a conversation, you can start an encrypted voice or video call using the icons at the top right. You can also send a text message at the bottom of the screen.
Get fancy with messaging
From the contact menu, you can add more than one member to start a new group message.
After opening a group chat, you can customize the group by clicking on the list of group members’ names at the top of the conversation. From here, click the settings menu at the bottom right of the screen (three dots). You can rename the group, mute the conversation, delete, or leave the conversation.
Wire on desktop
You can use Wire on your desktop as well! Before jumping in, think about whether Wire for desktop works for your situation. If you’re having highly sensitive conversations and think you may have malicious software on your personal computer, you probably don’t want to feed your encrypted messages (or your Wire account registration information) into that infected machine. For example, if you’re infected with malicious software designed to log your keystrokes or send screenshots to a remote attacker, encryption won’t protect your messages.
More chat goodies
You can do much more than communicate using text messages. Using the menu at the bottom of the screen, you can click the microphone icon to send a voice memo, or send written notes with the scribble icon.
Click on individual messages, and a heart will appear. Click on the heart to let conversational participants see how much you like the message.
To attach files, click the “three dot” icon to find more options, and click the paperclip icon.
Perhaps most importantly, you can attach images from your phone, and search for animated GIFs to plug into your conversation.
Get fancy with security
Make messages disappear
If you want to delete a specific message, press and hold the message. When the menu pops up, click “Delete.” If you click “Delete for Me” it will only delete the message locally, and anyone else in the conversation will still have it. If you sent a message, you can delete it for all conversational participants by clicking “Delete for Everyone.”
If you and your conversational partner want to automatically get rid of messages after a certain amount of time, click the timer icon to the right of the message box. From here you can choose how long you’d like the messages in this conversation to be visible — anywhere from between five seconds to one day.
Lock screen notification security
Even when your phone is locked, someone with physical access can still read the message and sender name on your lock screen. But we can fix that.
Navigate to Settings > Options > “Message Previews.” On this page, you can have Wire display sender name and message, sender name only, or no name or message.
On most messengers, there is no way to know that your message isn’t intercepted by a third party. With Wire, you can verify that the current conversation is secure for both messages and calls. Consider verifying for sensitive conversations.
You can verify that you are talking to the right person using device verification. Open a conversation, and click on the username at the top. Navigate to “devices” to see the user’s fingerprint — a unique code that corresponds to your partner’s device. You and your partner can be sure that you’ve both got the right devices by double checking your fingerprints over a different channel, such as Facebook, Twitter DMs, or a regular old phone call.
If you read your partner’s device fingerprint and it matches the one they see on their screen, you’re encrypting to the right device. While you’re at it, your partner should also check your device’s fingerprint. If their fingerprint doesn’t match the one you’re seeing for their device, something’s wrong. Chances are, you’ll get a match.
You won’t need to verify fingerprints again until someone starts a new session (e.g., when someone gets a new phone).
Perhaps it goes without saying, but encryption won’t help with someone who has physical access to your unlocked device. If you haven’t done so, password protect your device. Exit Wire and turn on your passcode.
iPhone users: Settings app > Touch ID & Passcode
Android users: Settings app > Security > Screen lock
If your phone is ever lost or stolen, thieves can copy and read data off the device, including your encrypted messages. Luckily it’s pretty easy to protect your device with disk encryption. If you use a modern password-protected iPhone, your device is already encrypted. Most modern Android devices support disk encryption, and a growing number of Android devices are encrypted by default (e.g., those in the Google Pixel line). Android users can enable disk encryption in minutes.
If you’re using Wire with an email address, your messages are only as secure as your email. Why? If someone manages to hijack your email, they can reset your password and take control of your Wire account. It’s therefore wise to require a second piece of information — a second factor — beyond your email password. Check if your favorite email provider offers support for two-factor authentication here. Gmail users can learn how to turn on two-factor authentication here.
Remember that strong encryption won’t help if your device or your partner’s device is compromised with malware. For example, some kinds of malware are designed to send screenshots of your messages to a remote hacker. The best defense is to simply install new software updates for Wire and your device itself. These updates usually contain valuable security patches; get them as soon as possible.
iPhone users: Wire uses iOS call integration, which allows you to access Wire calls and messages in your device’s message and call history and directly from the lock screen. This is convenient, but also syncs information about your contacts with iCloud (who you speak to and when). If this is a concern for you, consider turning off iOS call integration here: Wire Settings > Options > Share with iOS.
You’re caught up!
If you’re interested in learning more about secure messaging software, read up on Signal for Beginners, as well as the basics of Upgrading WhatsApp Security. To learn more about digital security more broadly, get started with Securing Your Digital Life Like a Normal Person. Feel free to reach out with thoughts or suggestions.
Parts of this article are adapted from Signal for Beginners. Updated September 19, 2019.