Leaving WhatsApp will be hard – but it is the right thing to do

Last week, WhatsApp sent a message to all of its users informing them of its new privacy policy, which would share data from the messaging app to Facebook – Elon Musk has a point when he tells us to ‘use Signal’

Adam Smith
Saturday 16 January 2021 12:40 GMT
Whatsapp competitor Signal stops working properly as users rush to leave over privacy update
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“Use Signal,” SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted on 7 January. “That's @signalapp, for those who don't speak Elon,” the infamous whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted shortly after. 

When asked why the former NSA employee recommended it, Snowden had a powerfully simple response: “I use it every day and I'm not dead yet.

Signal, for those who don’t speak Elon or Edward, is an end-to-end encrypted messaging app. This means that it uses a protocol that ensures nobody – including Signal – can access the content of the messages. Since the surge of popularity from the endorsements, it currently sits at the top spot on both Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store.  

These celebrity endorsements were sparked by Signal’s rival, WhatsApp. The Facebook-owned client has approximately 2 billion monthly active users around the world, while Signal has around 14 million. It’s hard to really call these apps competitors, since a messaging app is only as strong as its network. But while WhatsApp’s network is under threat, Signal’s continues to grow.

Last week, WhatsApp sent a message to all of its users informing them of its new privacy policy, which would share data from the messaging app to Facebook. This data includes battery level information, IP address, browser information, mobile network, phone number and the internet service provider.

This does not include the contents of users’ chats because those are, like Signal, end-to-end encrypted. In fact, WhatsApp uses the same protocol that Signal itself uses.  

Moreover, this does not include users in the "European region", which covers the EU, EEA, and the UK (even post-Brexit), despite being given a new privacy policy to agree to. “There are no changes to WhatsApp's data-sharing practices in Europe arising from this update,” director of policy for WhatsApp Niamh Sweeney tweeted.

The fact such a clarification needed to be made, that users did not understand how their data was protected, is the culmination of Facebook’s generally poor reputation with regards to privacy.

It is strange for a journalist to write this, but what matters is not how things are; it’s how things feel. WhatsApp might not share data to Facebook but it feels like it does, in the same way that your phone is (probably) not actually listening to your conversations, but the mass of information about your location, preferences, chat history, all collected by advertisers, means that the TV programme you were talking about only yesterday is now the first advert you see on the site.  

These “coincidences” are actually just surveillance capitalism, a manifestation of our every interest bought and sold so we become better consumers. It makes people uncomfortable, even if they might not necessarily be able to put into words why that is.

Moreover, Facebook is currently in an image war against Apple with regards to privacy. Apple’s new iPhone operating system will soon ask users whether they consent to being tracked by Facebook, something that many users will likely object to because of the legacy of the infamous Cambridge Analytica scandal.  

In the wake of Donald Trump’s recent attacks on democracy, many users are unlikely to want to hand more power to the organisation that, at least partially, helped get him elected.

While Facebook is not currently taking data from WhatsApp, that future is also coming soon. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has long talked about merging the back-end of all the company’s messaging platforms, as well as Instagram. Even if users are not currently having their data shared between platforms, the knowledge that such an event is coming is palpable.  

And finally, no-one likes to be forced to use something. Facebook’s various apps take up numerous precious slots on the phone’s home screen, and in the midst of antitrust suits claiming that the company crushes or purchases the competition, the idea that this can be fought against seems to be slowly seeping through to the everyday user.

Does using Signal solve every problem? No. Many people will still use Facebook, or Instagram, or WhatsApp – at least, until iMessage comes to Android – but Facebook’s power is in its user base. 

It’s hard to swap from WhatsApp because everyone is on WhatsApp, just as it's hard to move house when you’ve grown into the neighbourhood, or make friends if you’ve changed schools. But while difficult, and awkward, it is possible.  

Despite the apparent divine right of these tech platforms, they do not last forever – just look at the vacuum left from MySpace, or AOL, or BBM. Switching messaging apps might not feel like a lot, but it is an acknowledgement of an attempt at a different world built on different principles. That, at least, is a start.

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