WhatsApp has not had the best start to 2021. Last week, the messaging giant announced that users will soon have to share their data with Facebook (its parent company) as part of a new user agreement. It’s no wonder that a flood of users decided to go elsewhere.
In later developments, Elon Musk chimed in by prompting his Twitter followers to “use Signal,” referring to an alternative messaging tool. The initial flurry of WhatsApp outings turned into a major exodus. Along the way, Signal Advance, a totally offline device manufacturing company, saw its shares temporarily surge by more than 6000% when hobby investors accidentally jumped on the wrong train.
Here’s a closer look at what really changed in the WhatsApp / Facebook stable, and whether the Tesla boss’s advice is worth taking.
Who is affected by the new changes?
WhatsApp’s new data sharing agreements with Facebook do not apply to users in the EU or the UK.
WhatsApp continues to introduce new terms and conditions for UK and EU users. However, contentious changes are not included. According to a Facebook spokesperson: “For the avoidance of any doubt, it remains true that WhatsApp does not share data from WhatsApp users in the European region with Facebook in order for Facebook to use this data to improve its products and advertisements.”
What are the new WhatsApp privacy changes?
The exchange of data between WhatsApp and Facebook is not new.
Under the previous policy (outside the EU), the default setting was that WhatsApp could share your data with Facebook to allow ad targeting and “product experiences” from Facebook and its subsidiaries.
However, based on the rules above, you could at least choose not to share data, as long as you did so within 30 days of your first subscription to the service.
The new policy also provides a list of information that WhatsApp wants to have the ability to collect and share with Facebook. There are some worryingly personal things on the list: things like phone numbers, name and profile picture, details of who you’ve been communicating with, and financial transactions made through the app.
UPDATE: WhatsApp was set up to start prompting users on February 8 to agree to the updated terms to continue using the app. But Facebook said it is now pushing back the date for people to review and agree to the terms. No one will have their account suspended or deleted on February 8, Facebook added. People will “gradually” have the opportunity to review the policy “at their own pace” before new trading options become available on May 15.
What does WhatsApp say about the changes?
WhatsApp has responded with some damage limitation attempts. You can view the WhatApp’s updated FAQs here.
First, the company goes to great lengths to point out that neither WhatsApp nor Facebook can see users’ private messages or listen to their calls. Sets groups to stay private, doesn’t keep call logs, and can’t see your location.
WhatsApp claims that it is only really interested in your interactions with businesses. Basically, if you use the app to communicate with a business, it wants to have the ability to track those messages and deliver relevant advertisements to you, including Facebook ads.
What do users think?
At the moment, at least, a considerable number of them are looking elsewhere. Even in the UK, where mandatory data sharing for marketing purposes will not apply, Signal, the recently promoted alternative, quickly rose to the top of the download charts. It remains to be seen if this will lead to a long-term dent in WhatsApp usage statistics, or if it is just a case of users exploring their options.
Is Signal a better alternative to WhatsApp?
Very few users actively embrace the idea of their data being shared for marketing purposes. The fact that Facebook is the company with access to it can be of particular concern. After all, the father of WhatsApp doesn’t exactly have the best reputation when it comes to protecting user data. See, for example, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where it turned out that the private information of millions of Facebook users was being collected without their consent.
With Signal, there is no “big bad dad” in the background. The application is operated by the non-profit organization Signal Foundation, which has a policy of not sharing data with other entities.
WhatsApp and Signal actually share the same end-to-end encryption protocol (also called Signal). In both cases, your messages, calls, pictures, and anything else you share are encrypted. This means that you and the recipient are the only people who can read the communications.
There is no signal equivalent to WhatsApp’s business messaging feature (the cause of the current controversy).
Signal goes several steps further on the security front. Unlike WhatsApp, Signal encrypts your metadata. This metadata does not allow third parties to read your messages. However, it shows the authorities who he sent the message to and for how long.
Other layers of security that Signal offers include an option to lock in-app screenshots, an automatic face blur for sending images, and the ability to create encrypted local backups.
Signal offers basically everything most people need: that is, secure messaging, voice and video calls and the ability to create groups. The company has also recently added support for group calls. “Disappearing messages” (a bit like Snapchat).
Socially, your choice of messaging app always comes down to critical mass. If there’s no one you know there, it’s just added bloat on your phone. Should you invite your friends? The case is really very strong.