Ironically, many users may have already been sharing their contact details and the contact details of all their friends with Facebook, which owns WhatsApp since 2014.
This is because five years ago, WhatsApp gave users 30 days to check a box to opt-out of sharing their WhatsApp metadata with Facebook in exchange for “making product suggestions” and “relevant offers and ads.”
But in 2021, the reaction to WhatsApp’s ultimatum and the lack of an opt-out option is more serious.
Perhaps a heightened consciousness about personal data privacy has prompted a mass migration of WhatsApp users to other messaging apps, such as Signal or Telegram.
WhatsApp has been forced to release a statement clarifying that private chats continue to remain end-to-end encrypted, and those cannot be accessed by either WhatsApp, Facebook, or other third-party partners.
The new changes only concern chats with business accounts that will be shared for ad targeting.
The clarification may have stopped some from switching, but a larger section of users seems to have lost trust in WhatsApp and have shown greater faith in Telegram and Signal.
A TEMPORARY PEACE OF MIND
The switch to alternative messaging apps might provide users with temporary peace of mind, but does it answer the longstanding questions of privacy and business models of messaging apps? Perhaps not.
Telegram has largely marketed itself as a more secure messaging service that would stay away from monetising private chats.
Pavel Durov, one of the co-founders of the app recently stated:
We will never force you to view 30-second ads on Telegram. If we ever introduce ads, the ads will be shown only in large one-to-many channels which are expensive to run due to server and traffic costs … and not targeted based on any private data (unlike Facebook). So, no collecting private data, no user profiling etc. And if you don't use our one-to-many channels (which are non-existent in all other messaging apps), you won't see a single ad.
A WORD OF CAUTION: USER GROWTH AND MONETISATION
However, before jumping ship to Telegram, it would be prudent for users to remember two things.
Durov’s answer is based on Telegram’s current user base and outreach. As server and traffic costs go up, Telegram and other platforms might need to consider measures to keep their business intact.
Would Telegram or Signal really never monetise users’ chats? Perhaps that won’t happen tomorrow, but who knows what the technological landscape looks like in five years?
We forget a 2012 WhatsApp blog post laid out why the creators Jan Kaoum & Brian Acton don’t sell ads on the platform. But it seems all promises were broken when they were bought by Facebook for US$19 billion in 2014 and subsequently rolled out terms of services that legitimised the use of private data for ads.
On this business front, WhatsApp’s ability to monetise business account chats may largely be driven by its user base.
It is currently the largest messaging service with over 2 billion monthly active users. Telegram in contrast has approximately only one-fifth of the user base (of about 400 million users), with Signal following at 20 million monthly active users.
The large user base of WhatsApp makes it a feasible ground for advertising.
READ: Commentary: Facebook’s eleventh-hour suspension of Trump’s account raises questions about its motives
HOW SAFE ARE TELEGRAM AND SIGNAL?
The other thing to keep in mind is that question of security: Are Telegram and Signal really safer for your private data than WhatsApp? You may be surprised.
Unlike WhatsApp, Telegram’s chats are not end-to-end encrypted by default. To enable that function, users must start a “secret chat”. Your chats will be stored on Telegram’s local servers otherwise.
But even with end-to-end encryption, researchers at MIT reported in 2017 that it is possible to snoop on some users and detect when a conversation is happening. “Telegram has had serious and simple issues in the protocol that any knowledgeable security expert could penetrate,” suggest the authors.
Symantec’s security also reported in 2019 that a vulnerability in Telegram could allow malware to substitute images and videos. This could mean, for instance, that any critical information distributed through images, such as bank account and identity information, could be altered.
Similarly, questions regarding privacy measures of Signal have also been raised. Google’s vulnerability researchers at Project Zero found susceptibilities in the app that allowed intruders to listen in on user conversations.
Researchers from cybersecurity firm Tenable were also able to track Signal user’s location by calling their Signal number. The location tracking could work even if the call is not answered.
Telegram and Signal may have fixed these specific bugs, but the breaches suggest that new apps can be vulnerable, especially at the onset.
Even if such flaws are exposed and resolved, more transparent information is needed so that users can compare different platforms and find the one best suited for their needs.
MINDING THE DIGITAL LITERACY GAP
In summary, corporates are accountable to their stakeholders to show profits based on the free services they provide to billions of their users worldwide.
This online ecosystem is bought and paid for with our personal data. When we sign up to a new social media platform, we enter a business contract with them in which we effectively waive our rights on whatever we do on their platforms and, often, what we do outside their platforms too.
We should always be mindful of the profit bottom line that drives much of social media design, policy, and experience, and what the price of free services really is. As users, therefore, we need to be vigilant about the limitations of different platforms, and where and how we share our personal data online.
READ: Commentary: Encourage seniors in digitalisation drive instead of forcing tech adoption on them
Perhaps a secure alternative to freeware like WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal is the European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)-compliant paid app Threema.
Threema uses end-to-end encryption and allows users to use the app anonymously. No central accounts linked to a phone number or email address is required. However, the app isn't popular across the world, perhaps because it has a pricetag. It is thus, our decision if we prioritise price over privacy.
I would recommend that social media users educate themselves, examine their data rights, and always protect themselves whenever they use an online service. Digital literacy is essential not just for personal safety but also for social and national security.
Listen to a lawyer and a media professor break down WhatsApp's new terms of service on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:
Saifuddin Ahmed is Assistant Professor at Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information. His research interests lie in the effects of social media on civic and political behavior.