Privacy

What’s up with WhatsApp

David Strom 18 Jan 2021

Is now the time to move your messaging elsewhere?

Earlier this month, WhatsApp gave its users an ultimatum: accept new data sharing terms or delete their accounts. For some of its billion global users, this was not received well, especially since some of your data would be shared across all of Facebook’s other operations.

The change was indicated through a pop-up message that requires users to agree to the changes before February 8. The aftermath was swift: tens of millions of users signed up for either Signal or Telegram within hours of the news.

According to the New York Times, Telegram said it added more than 25 million users over three days, pushing it to over 500 million users. Signal added nearly 1.3 million users on one day alone, after averaging just 50,000 downloads a day last year. It is now the top downloaded messaging app in India.

Late last week, WhatsApp announced postponing the changes until May 15. But this move by the company deserves further reflection and analysis. The issue is that the changes apply only to how businesses obtain this information. Messages between individuals are still encrypted and not shared with anyone. (At least not yet, and therein lies the issue for WhatsApp, which for several years now has been owned by Facebook.)

The level of trust in Facebook has been eroded, thanks to unfulfilled privacy promises of its executives. The Verge put this analysis together that is worth reviewing. Nevertheless, the Turkish government’s business regulators have begun a probe into WhatsApp’s data collection practices. The agency requested the company not institute its data collection effort, claiming it was illegal.

To try to fight back with the facts, WhatsApp quickly issued this FAQ and sent out this stream of tweets to try to clarify the sharing issue. They're good, and I urge you to review both posts. However, if we take a step back and examine the messaging marketplace there are clearly major differences in the kinds and quantity of data that WhatsApp collects, compared to other Facebook products (including Facebook Messenger, which is a separate smartphone app), Signal and Telegram.

The table below links to explanations on the respective company’s privacy policies (some of which are particularly opaque — especially Facebook’s) and summarizes the data that these apps track. I have placed the links to the official privacy policies of each app, along with what the Apple and Google app stores report. As you can see, Apple has gone the extra mile in its explanations. And WhatsApp has different privacy policies depending on where you live, just to make matters more complex.

What user data is actually collected

 

WhatsApp

Signal

Telegram

Facebook Messenger

Apple App Store privacy info

(link)

(link)

(link)

(link)

Company privacy info

(link)*

(privacy policy)

(Further details)

(link)

(link to other Facebook products)

Google Play Store privacy info

(link)

(link)

(link)

(link)

Total shared data elements

17**

1

3

36

Key data elements shared with businesses

Package***

Coarse location

Just your phone number

Purchase history, user ID, contacts****

Package***

Coarse and precise location

Notes

*There are separate privacy policies for California, Brazil, the EU (only available from that location) and the API itself.

**Facebook will share across its network with whom you contact, when, how often, and from where from all WhatsApp accounts.

***The apps will share a collection of your purchase history, user ID, contacts, Service ID, phone number, email address, diagnostic data, payment information location data, product interaction and advertising data, along with other data elements.

****Under certain extreme circumstances, the Android Telegram app can expose your precise location, according to this analysis.


As you can see, Facebook Messenger has more than 30 different data elements it collects. If you're running it on your phone and concerned about privacy, you should delete it and just use the web version, where it can run in the main browser window when you visit Facebook itself.

Signal or Telegram: Which is better?

If we just look at our table above, it certainly seems that Signal has done the most to be as parsimonious as possible with your privacy. That is a good thing, and a reason why many people have moved on over to using the app. If you are concerned about your privacy first and foremost, you should be using Signal, because it basically doesn’t collect anything from you once you give the company your phone number. However, it also scans your phone’s contacts to find the phone numbers that it recognizes as other users.

While WhatsApp only encrypts messages and calls, another reason to use Signal is because it encrypts the metadata as well. That is something to think about just because an app promises end-to-end encryption doesn’t mean the encryption is applied across all of its data.

And as I mentioned in the third note (***) in our table, security analysts have figured out a way around collecting Telegram’s location data, something the company has so far insisted it won’t attempt to fix. That could be troubling Signal does seem to be more focused on privacy and locking all possible leaks or hacks

Another thing worth mentioning is that poorly designed apps can leak all kinds of data. Witness the Parler fallout, which we wrote about earlier this month. Parler’s API didn’t require authentication or check to see if bulk data downloads were happening. These taken together made it absurdly simple for anyone to collect private data. And it didn’t help Parler’s cause when one Congresswoman asked that folks should post their private information online, either.  

Stay or switch?

This brings up the point of whether you should switch from using WhatsApp to using either Signal or Telegram. Before you make any decision, check out two things:

First, you might be okay with adjusting your WhatsApp privacy settings, as this post recommends. Some of your data will still be shared with Facebook as we indicated in the second note (**) in our table, but if you already have a Facebook profile, that might be acceptable.  Second, you should understand what you will have to go through if you want to leave WhatsApp and purge all of its data from your phone. (That link has  instructions for both iOS and Android, starting with deactivating your account and archiving your chats and message logs.)

But wait once you are done with the purge, you will also have to figure out what platform (Signal vs. Telegram) your friends and family and other associates are using, otherwise once you switch you won’t have many folks to actually talk to. One of the reasons why WhatsApp was so successful is that it became the de facto communications tool in recent times, even before they were purchased by Facebook.

Whichever option you go with, any alternative to WhatsApp will take time to grow its network, even at the record adoption rates we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks.