Skype is a telecommunications application software product that specializes in providing video chat and voice calls between computers, tablets, mobile devices, the Xbox One console, and smartwatches via the Internet and to regular telephones. It is one of the more popular methods of making voice calls (emulating telephones) over the Internet.
Microsoft purchased Skype from a privately-owned company in May 2011 for $8.5 billion. At the time, Skype was very popular, primarily because of its high audio quality and ease of use. Skype also was believed to be very secure at the time. While never officially stated, the advertising for Skype hinted that conversations between two Skype users (not traveling over public telephone lines) could not be wiretapped in its distributed, peer-to-peer network.
In the years since the acquisition, the ease of use in Skype has gone away, replaced by a very awkward user interface that is obviously designed for corporate use. The audio quality remains rather good. The original peer-to-peer network has been replaced with a more-or-less standard network that uses Microsoft servers to establish connections. The new network appears to be less secure than the previous peer-to-peer implementation.
Since the Microsoft acquisition, the number of Skype users has obviously declined significantly, discouraged by the awkward user interface, by the rising number of user-friendly competitors, and questionable security. Microsoft refuses to publish the number of current users.
According to a report from Bloomberg:
“Since acquiring Skype from private equity investors, Microsoft has refocused the online calling service on the corporate market, a change that has made Skype less intuitive and harder to use, prompting many Skypers to defect to similar services operated by Apple, Google, Facebook and Snap. The company hasn’t updated the number of Skype users since 2016, when it put the total at 300 million. Some analysts suspect the numbers are flat at best, and two former employees describe a general sense of panic that they’re actually falling. The ex-Microsofters, who requested anonymity to discuss confidential statistics, say that as late as 2017 they never heard a figure higher than 300 million discussed internally.”
The Bloomberg report also states, “the complexity of the corporate software (security, search, and the ability to host town halls) crowds out the simplicity consumers prefer (ease-of-use and decent call quality).”
If you are a Skype user, you might want to replace Skype with something that is easier to use and is more secure. Luckily, there are quite a few services to choose from that meet those criteria.
Computer-to-Computer Voice Calls
If you only need to talk from computer to computer, not to normal telephones, you should look at Signal at https://signal.org/.
Signal is an ENCRYPTED communications app for Android and iOS. A desktop version is also available for Linux, Windows, and macOS. Signal originally was introduced as an encrypted text messaging service and then later added the capability to make encrypted voice calls between Signal users. Signal is fully open source, making it very attractive for anyone concerned with privacy. You can be assured there is no secret ‘back door” in the product that will store your personal data.
The encryption on Signal reportedly is very good, meaning that communications cannot be intercepted by hackers, Russian spies, North Korean spies, or the NSA. Even Russia is trying to block the use of Signal within the country, which is high praise indeed for Signal’s security. Signal is also endorsed by Edward Snowden, another person who is a well-known expert in electronic security.
I use Signal a lot and find the user interface is very easy to use, significantly easier than doing the same thing in Skype. The audio quality is also very good, always as good as or better than normal telephone calls. That is especially true on long-distance calls. In my experience, international calls using Signal always have better audio quality than placing calls over a telephone company’s service. The calls also are much cheaper than what telephone companies charge. In fact, Signal calls are always FREE.
Yes, all calls between Signal users are free of charge, regardless of distances or international boundaries. However, if the calls are made over a cellular connection, fees to the cell phone provider may be charged. (Some cellular services offer unlimited data at no additional charge while others do not. Check your cellular contract to see what your obligations are.) Calls over wi-fi and calls made over cell services that offer unlimited data are free.
Another option is Tox, an open source program that allows you to connect with friends and loved ones without anyone else listening in. Tox also offers completely free and encrypted voice calls. All calls between Tox users are free of charge, regardless of distances or international boundaries. Tox is not as well developed or has as many features as Signal. It is also an open source project. More information about Tox may be found at https://tox.chat.
Apple’s FaceTime offers both voice and video calling, along with very strong encryption. The product is free and is installed on every iPhone sold in the past few years. It also can be downloaded from the Apple App Store at no charge and installed on Macintosh computers. Unfortunately, FaceTime is available only for Apple products, not for Windows computers and not for Android cell phones. Also, it cannot call normal telephones. You can learn a lot more about FaceTime’s security in iPhone Encryption is Unbreakable – As Long As You Use a Password at http://bit.ly/2IbifRU.
Not to be outdone by Apple, Google created Duo for Android and also for iPhone and iPad iOS systems. As a result, Android users and Apple users can communicate with each other as long as they are all using Duo, not FaceTime. Duo is a two-video video application. It cannot call normal telephones. End-to-end encryption is enabled by default. Duo is available in the Google Play Store for Android systems and in the Apple App Store for iPhones and iPads. It is not available for desktop and laptop systems, however.
Telephone or Walkie-Talkie?
Still another option for cell phones is Zello, a voice service that replaces walkie-talkies. The audio quality on Zello is usually much better than that of the typical two-way radio and even better than most telephone calls. Zello communications are crystal-clear, not plagued with static, fading signals, or interference from other users like most traditional walkie-talkies.
Zello isn’t a true telephone replacement, however, as it does not provide two-way SIMULTANEOUS communication. Instead, It uses push-to-talk capabilities that provide one-way-at-a-time communications, similar to what police, fire, and other two-way radios provide. Push the button on the microphone or on the cell phone to talk, release the button to listen. If you have ever used a CB radio, you already know how to use Zello. Because of the emulation of a walkie-talkie, Zello may or may not be a good replacement for you to use to replace other communications devices and services.
Best of all, Zello offers reliable WORLDWIDE communications. Any Zello user can communicate with any other Zello user anywhere in the world as long as both are connected to the Internet via wi-fi or cellular networks. That’s much longer range than other (expensive) two-way radio services.
The advantages of Zello are that it is free software and that communications are free over wi-fi and may or may not be free over cellular networks. (Some cellular services offer unlimited data at no additional charge while others do not. Check your cellular contract to see what your obligations are.) Even if your cellular provider charges for cellular data, most Zello users report that use of Zello typically adds less than one dollar per month to the cellular bill.
More than 20 million people around the world are already talking, listening, and sharing ideas on Zello, and that number is increasing rapidly. According to Zello’s CEO, more than 120 people downloaded and installed the Zello app PER SECOND during the days before Hurricane Irma.
The communications between users of Zello’s free service are not encrypted. Communications between users on private channels are difficult for hackers to intercept but not impossible. Communications on public channels can be heard by anyone else using Zello. Encryption is an option offered on the paid version of Zello that is marketed to commercial companies, government agencies, non-profit organizations (such as the Red Cross), and to anyone else who needs communication with dozens or hundreds of employees or volunteers. However, the paid version is rarely used by individual consumers.
For more information about Zello, see my earlier article, The Zello App Can Help Save Lives During Major Storms and Has Many Others Uses Also, at: https://privacyblog.com/2018/03/30/the-zello-app-can-help-save-lives-during-major-storms-and-has-many-others-uses-also/.
Calls to Plain Old-fashioned Telephone Services (POTS)
If you need to call normal telephones, you have dozens of services to choose from. While evaluating the available services, the buzzword you will quickly learn is VoIP, an abbreviation for “Voice over Internet Protocol.” However, most of the VoIP services are not encrypted. As a result, hackers and government spies alike can easily wiretap your conversations, the same as regular (old-fashioned) telephones.
NOTE: One service, called Ooma, offers encryption when the signals travel over computer networks. Any calls between two Ooma users will be encrypted all the way. However, calls between an Ooma user and a normal telephone (or any non-Ooma user) will become unencrypted and wire tappable as soon as the call enters the old-fashioned telephone networks. Encryption is not available on Plain Old-Fashioned Telephone Services (POTS).
You can read more about Ooma’s encryption in a discussion on the Ooma Support Forum at http://ooma.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=1131&p=5680#p8177.
You can learn more about the many VoIP providers by starting at https://duckduckgo.com/?q=best+voip+services&t=hg&ia=web.
Another Option: Black Phones
The so-called “Black Phones” connect to Plain Old-Fashioned Telephone Services (POTS) but have encryption and decryption built into the telephones. A call made between two Black Phones produced by the same manufacturer can always be encrypted. However, when calling any other telephone, encryption will not be available.
Black Phones seem to appear and disappear in the marketplace often. Also, they tend to be very expensive, too expensive for most consumers. Black phones are normally purchased by governments, military, and corporations for use in communications that require high levels of security. Because of the prices involved, a discussion of Black Phones is beyond the scope of this article. However, if you want to learn more about Black Phones, I suggest you start at: https://duckduckgo.com/?q=%22Black+Phone%22&t=hg&ia=web.
I will point out that if two people are both using the free Signal app on their cell phones, their conversations probably cannot be tapped. Is Signal just as good as a $1,000 Black Phone? I don’t think any of the experts will confirm or deny that publicly. However, Signal does provide very good security at no charge.
All in all, you have a number of easy-to-use communications tools available, most of them are free of charge, and many of them offer high security. Why use a product that is only second-best?