WhatsApp hasn’t had the greatest 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. Not surprisingly, a flurry of users decided to go elsewhere.
In further developments, Elon Musk weighed in by prompting his Twitter followers to “use Signal”, referring to an alternative messaging tool. The initial flurry of WhatsApp departures turned into a larger exodus. Along the way, Signal Advance, a totally unconnected device manufacturing company, saw its stock temporarily spike by more than 6000% as amateur investors accidentally jumped on the wrong bandwagon.
Here’s a closer look at what’s really changed over at the WhatsApp/Facebook stable, and at whether the Tesla chief’s advice is worth following.
Who is affected by the new changes?
WhatsApp’s new data sharing arrangements with Facebook do not apply to EU or UK users.
WhatsApp has still been presenting new terms and conditions to UK and EU users. However, the contentious changes are not included. According to a Facebook spokesperson: “For the avoidance of any doubt, it is still the case that WhatsApp does not share European region WhatsApp user data with Facebook for the purpose of Facebook using this data to improve its products and advertisements”.
What are the new WhatsApp privacy changes?
- The sharing of data between WhatsApp and Facebook isn’t new.
- Under the old policy (outside of the EU), the default setting was that WhatsApp could share your data with Facebook to enable ad targeting and “product experiences” from Facebook and its subsidiaries.
- Under the old rules however, you could at least opt out of data sharing, so long as you did so within 30 days of first signing up with the service.
- The new policy also gives a list of information WhatsApp wants the ability to collect and share with Facebook. There’s some worryingly personal stuff on the list: things like phone numbers, profile name and photo, details of who you have been communicating with and financial transactions conducted over the app.
UPDATE - WhatsApp was set to start prompting users on 8 February to accept updated terms in order to continue using the app. But Facebook said that it is now pushing the date back for people to review and accept the terms. No one will have their account suspended or deleted on 8 February, Facebook added. People will “gradually” have the chance to review the policy “at their own pace” before the new business options are available on May 15.
What does WhatsApp say about the changes?
WhatsApp has responded with some attempted damage limitation. You can view the company’s updated FAQs here.
First off, the company is at pains to point out that neither WhatsApp nor Facebook can see users’ private messages or hear their calls. It states that Groups remain private, it doesn’t keep call logs and can’t see your location.
WhatsApp claims that it’s only really interested in your interactions with businesses. Basically, if you use the app to communicate with a business, it wants the ability to trawl through those messages and push relevant ads at you, including Facebook ads.
What do users think?
For the time being at least, a sizeable number of them are looking elsewhere. Even in the UK, where the compulsory data sharing for marketing purposes will not apply, Signal, the newly-hyped alternative, quickly rose to the top of the download charts. Whether this will lead to a long-term dent in WhatsApp usage stats, or whether it’s just a case of users exploring their options, remains to be seen.
Is Signal a better alternative to WhatsApp?
Very few users actively welcome the idea of their data being shared for marketing purposes. The fact that Facebook is the company with access to it may be especially worrying. After all, WhatsApp’s parent does not exactly have the best reputation when it comes to safeguarding user data. See for instance the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where it turned out that the private information of millions of Facebook users was being harvested without their consent.
With Signal, there’s no ‘big, bad parent’ in the background. The app is operated by the non-profit Signal Foundation, which has a policy of not sharing data with other entities.
WhatsApp and Signal actually both share the same end-to-end encryption protocol (also called Signal). In both cases, messages, calls, images, and anything else you share is encrypted. This means that you and the recipient are the only people who can read the communications.
There’s 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 enable third parties to read your messages. However, it does show authorities who you messaged, and for how long.
Other layers of security offered by Signal include an option to block screenshots within the app, an automatic facial blur for sending images and the ability to create encrypted local backups.
Signal offers basically all the stuff most people need: i.e. secure messaging, voice and video calls and the ability to create groups. The company also has recently added support for group calling. ‘Disappearing messages’ (a bit like Snapchat) .
Socially, your choice of messaging app always comes down to critical mass. If no-one you know is on there, it’s just extra bloat on your phone. Should you invite your friends onto it? The case is actually very strong.