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WhatsApp's New Privacy Policy Sparks User Exodus to Signal and Telegram

Jan 11, 2021 1:06 PM 5 min read

Since last week, WhatsApp users have been receiving in-app alerts regarding updated privacy rules and terms of service. If users do not consent to the new terms before February 8th 2021, they are likely to lose access to most of the messaging app’s services.

The new rules affect all of WhatsApp’s 2 billion+ user base (except for users in the EU and UK) and have privacy-focused users worried. As a consequence, the update has sparked a user exodus of sorts to “safer” messaging services - most notably, Signal and Telegram.

What are WhatsApp’s New Privacy Rules?

Under the new terms of service, parent company Facebook would be able to access information that WhatsApp automatically collects from its users. This includes data on user activity and device-level information.

Now, users already provide WhatsApp with a wide range of personal information, chiefly in the form of metadata. The change is that, come February 8th, even Facebook would have access to this.

This information includes your mobile number, profile photo, status, "About" information, how often you use WhatsApp, the features you use, contacts, information of the Groups you're in, and transactions and payments data if you’re using WhatsApp Pay.

Also, “device-level information” including info on what device you use, your mobile network, IP address, hardware model, operating system information, battery level, signal strength, app version, browser information, language, time zone etc. Would be in its purview.

WhatsApp also collects data on cookies and location information.

(An exhaustive list of what WhatsApp collects from you - and soon will share with Facebook too - can be accessed here.)


How Will Your Data Be Used By Facebook?

This treasure trove of data can be used by Facebook and its companies to personalise features, content and ads for you across the platforms and offer improved business services vis-a-vis the business accounts on the platforms.

The data could also be used by the businesses you interact with on the platform. Furthermore, “businesses might be working with third-party service providers (which may include Facebook) to help manage their communications with their customers.” To understand how the business is handling your information, WhatsApp recommends that users read the “business’ privacy policy or contact the business directly”.

Your data won’t be used to display personalised ads on WhatsApp - an ad-based monetisation model for WhatsApp was explored by Facebook, but that plan was shelved. (For now.)

Also, the new terms of service do not involve WhatsApp combing through your personal chats to tailor ads and purchases for you. WhatsApp chats are still end-to-end encrypted so the company theoretically cannot use them for monetisation.

Well, not yet anyway.


Why is Facebook Doing This?

WhatsApp’s new update is part of Facebook’s push to achieve seamless “interoperability” between its family of apps - WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger and Facebook itself.

It is also a part of the push to monetise WhatsApp, something Facebook’s management has been trying to do ever since its acquisition in 2014.

In fact, both these objectives have been a long time coming. As such, the new updates haven’t shocked tech observers per se.

Instagram’s Direct Messages and Messenger have already been integrated. Facebook has added its Messenger Rooms feature on WhatsApp. The inter-app integration is already underway.

As for monetisation, the new rules would be the most definitive push in that direction yet. But the fact is, WhatsApp has been sharing your information with Facebook for years. In 2016, the messaging service began sharing bits of user data including phone numbers and last seen activity with Facebook.

At the time, users were given 30 days to opt-out of the data sharing arrangement with Facebook, after which they would have no choice but to accept. For the billion-plus users who joined after 2016, their data was automatically up for grabs for Facebook.


Smells Like Betrayal

In 2014, when Facebook bought WhatsApp for $22bn, it assured the world that it would not use the latter’s data to expand its own operations. WhatsApp publicly committed to never share data with Facebook.

Both parties began reneging on that assurance merely two years later (and were fined €110m by the EU for lying about the same). The new rules this year are another slap on the face for anyone who believed Facebook’s promise (but to be fair, that may not be many people).

Facebook’s crusade for interoperability has been controversial internally. It may have also contributed to the departures in late 2017 and 2018, respectively, of WhatsApp co-founders Brian Acton and Jan Koum.

Interestingly, Acton went on to co-found the Signal Foundation, which worked to make encrypted messaging service Signal go mainstream.


Enter, Signal and Telegram

WhatsApp’s new privacy policy has alarmed many users, causing them to shift to other, more secure messaging services like Signal and Telegram. More than 100,000 users installed Signal across the Apple and Google app stores in the two days since the announcement, while Telegram picked up nearly 2.2 million downloads, according to data analytics firm Sensor Tower.

The drivers behind this shift include big companies like Tata Steel which have asked employees to refrain from discussing sensitive information on WhatsApp and public personalities like Elon Musk and Jack Dorsey who have encouraged people to shift to Signal.

The Signal encrypted messaging protocol is widely regarded as the gold standard in encrypted communications. Messaging on Signal, just as on WhatsApp, is end-to-end encrypted. But Signal takes things several steps further. It also encrypts metadata and offers services like disappearing messages. Furthermore, its source code is open and accessible by one and all - which means it has less potential for hidden vulnerabilities and security lapses.

Also, Signal is a not-for-profit organisation unlike Facebook, which is a listed company. This is something the former was forced to point out after Musk’s endorsement sent the stock price of Signal Advance Inc. (an unrelated company) soaring almost 600%!


What Next?

WhatsApp’s upstart rivals have a long, long way to go. They may be having a day in the sun right now, but the deck is still stacked heavily against them. Telegram has about 400 million monthly active users while Signal has only about 10-20 million. In comparison, WhatsApp is a 2 billion-strong Goliath.

And to be fair, the language being used to describe Signal was once upon a time used for WhatApp when it was an independent entity. Pre-2014, the service was seen as fiercely independent and passionate about user privacy. Then Facebook bought it and turned it into a money-churning, data-divulging, privacy-selling engine.

There will always be concern that Signal will one day have enough users and clout to attract big money and go down the WhatsApp way.

Speaking of volte-faces, there’s nothing stopping WhatsApp from one day terminating end-to-end encryption and monetising your personal messages too. You know, to “improve your app experience because we care for our users” and not for any good old corporate data harvesting.

There is one force that could stop such egregious data collecting by Big Tech companies - strong data protection legislation by governments. It has after all stopped WhatsApp from imposing its new rules in the EU, which has famously stringent privacy protection laws. In India, the Data Protection Bill is still being debated; ensuring its swift passage and ensuring that it has enough teeth to keep Big Tech’s antics at bay are indispensable if we are serious about data protection and user privacy.

In the meantime, probably the only respite we have is probably hoping that the FTC lawsuit against Facebook forces it to divorce WhatsApp once and for all.


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