The Facebook-owned messaging service has been hit by a global backlash over privacy. Many users are migrating to Signal or Telegram. Should you join them?
WhatsApp soon issued a clarification, explaining that the new policy only affects the way users’ accounts interact with businesses (ie not with their friends) and does not mandate any new data collection. The messaging app also delayed the introduction of the policy by three months. Crucially, WhatsApp said, the new policy doesn’t affect the content of your chats, which remain protected by end-to-end encryption – the “gold standard” of security that means no one can view the content of messages, even WhatsApp, Facebook, or the authorities.
But the damage had already been done. The bungled communication attempts have raised awareness that WhatsApp does collect a lot of data, and some of this could be shared with Facebook. The BBC reported that Signal was downloaded 246,000 times worldwide in the week before WhatsApp announced the change on 4 January, and 8.8m times the week after.
WhatsApp does share some data with Facebook, including phone numbers and profile name, but this has been happening for years. WhatsApp has stated that in the UK and EU the update does not share further data with Facebook – because of strict privacy regulation, known as the general update to data protection regulation (GDPR). The messaging app doesn’t gather the content of your chats, but it does collect the metadata attached to them – such as the sender, the time a message was sent and who it was sent to. This can be shared with “Facebook companies”.
Facebook’s highly criticised data collection ethos has eroded trust in the social network. Its practices can put vulnerable people at risk, says Emily Overton, a data protection expert and managing director of RMGirl. She cites the example of Facebook’s “people you may know” algorithm exposing sex workers’ real names to their clients – despite both parties taking care to set up fake identities. “The more data they profile, the more they put people in vulnerable positions at risk.”
And the social network isn’t known for keeping promises. When Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014, it pledged to keep the two services separate. Yet only a few years later, Facebook announced aims to integrate the messaging systems of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. This appears to have stalled owing to technical and regulatory difficulties around encryption, but it’s still the long-term plan.
Why are people choosing Signal over Telegram?
Signal, a secure messaging app recommended by authorities such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Edward Snowden, has been the main beneficiary of the WhatsApp exodus. Another messaging app, Telegram, has also experienced an uptick in downloads, but Signal has been topping the charts on the Apple and Android app stores.
Signal benefits from being the most similar to WhatsApp in terms of features, while Telegram has had problems as a secure and private messaging app, with its live location feature recently coming under fire for privacy infringements. Crucially, Telegram is not end-to-end encrypted by default, instead storing your data in the cloud. Signal is end-to-end encrypted, collects less data than Telegram and stores messages on your device rather than in the cloud.
Does Signal have all the features I am used to and why is it more private?
Yes, Signal has most of the features you are used to on WhatsApp, such as stickers and emojis. You can set up and name groups, and it’s easy to send a message: just bring up the pen sign in the right-hand corner.
Signal has a desktop app, and you can voice and video chat with up to eight people. Like WhatsApp, Signal uses your phone number as your identity, something that has concerned some privacy and security advocates. However, the company has introduced pin codes in the hope of moving to a more secure and private way of identifying users in the future.
As well as being end-to-end encrypted, both WhatsApp and Signal have a “disappearing messages” feature for additional privacy. The major difference is how each app is funded. WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, whose business model is based on advertising. Signal is privacy focused and has no desire to analyse, share or profit from users’ private information, says Jake Moore, cybersecurity specialist at ESET.
Signal is supported by the non-profit Signal Foundation, set up in 2018 by WhatsApp founder Brian Acton and security researcher (and Signal Messenger CEO) Moxie Marlinspike, who created an encryption protocol that is used by several messaging services, including WhatsApp and Skype as well as Signal itself. Acton, who left Facebook in 2017 after expressing concerns over how the company operated, donated an initial $50m to Signal, and the open-source app is now funded by the community. Essentially that means developers across the world will continually work on it and fix security issues as part of a collaborative effort, making the app arguably more secure.
But there are concerns over whether Signal can maintain this free model as its user base increases to the tens, or potentially in the future, hundreds of millions. Signal is adamant it can continue to offer its service for free. “As a non-profit, we simply need to break even,” says Aruna Harder, the app’s COO.
Signal is exclusively supported by grants and donations, says Acton. “We believe that millions of people value privacy enough to sustain it, and we’re here to demonstrate that there is an alternative to the ad-based business models that exploit user privacy.”
I want to move to Signal. How do you persuade WhatsApp groups to switch?
The momentum away from WhatsApp does appear to be building, and you may find more of your friends have switched to Signal already. But persuading a larger contact group can be more challenging.
Overton has been using Signal for several years and says all her regular contacts use the app. “Even when dating online, I ask the person I want to go on a date with to download Signal, or they don’t get my number.”
Some Signal advocates have already begun to migrate their groups over from WhatsApp. Jim Creese, a security expert, is moving a neighbourhood text group of 100 people to Signal. He is starting with a smaller sub-group of 20, some of whom struggle with technology. Creese says most are ambivalent about switching “as long as the new method isn’t more difficult”.
He advises anyone who’s moving groups across apps to focus on the “why” first. “Explain the reasons for the change, how it is likely to affect them, and the benefits. Don’t rush the process. While WhatsApp might not be where you want to be today, there’s no emergency requiring an immediate move.”
Moore thinks the shift away from WhatsApp will continue to gain momentum, but he says it will take time to move everyone across. Until then, it’s likely you will need to keep both WhatsApp and Signal on your phone.
Moore is in the process of moving a family chat to Signal, for the second time. “When I originally tried, one family member didn’t understand my concerns and thought I was being overcautious.
“However, the recent news has helped him understand the potential issues and why moving isn’t such a bad idea. The next hurdle will be getting my mother to download a new app and use it for the first time without me physically assisting her.”