Amid concerns over WhatsApp’s new privacy terms, users wonder whether or not to switch

Ethan Paul, South China Morning Post

Posted at Jan 14 2021 03:39 PM

Millions of people around the world, many Hongkongers among them, are considering dropping the encrypted messaging platform WhatsApp and switching instead to alternatives they believe offer better data and privacy protection following the announcement of changes to the way the app shares information with its parent company, Facebook.

WhatsApp last week asked its more than 2 billion global users to agree to new terms regarding the way it shares their personal information with Facebook by February 8, or they will no longer be able to use its services.

The move triggered an outcry from everyday WhatsApp users and Hong Kong’s privacy watchdog alike, with many jumping ship to rivals such as Signal and Telegram.

Below, the Post walks you through why this exodus is happening now, and whether you should consider making the switch yourself.

Why are people looking beyond WhatsApp?

The backlash against WhatsApp started building weeks ago, after Apple in mid-December announced updates to its own privacy rules, including for its messaging platform iMessage.

For many, Apple’s new policy only accentuated concerns that have long existed for WhatsApp, specifically ones related to its collection of users’ metadata – the granular information that can be extracted from and linked to an individual’s device, including their contact lists, location and purchase history.

Zak Doffman, founder and CEO of Britain-based technology firm Digital Barriers, said WhatsApp collected far more of this data on its users than many of its competitors, such as iMessage, Signal and Telegram.

This made it all the more concerning for some users when they started receiving notifications last week saying some of their data may now be shared with parent company Facebook and its other subsidiaries, leading to a backlash that Doffman said had been overblown.

“Some people are saying the starting pistol has been fired. That is not true,” he said. “WhatsApp hasn’t changed so fundamentally that all the data on your phone will be insecure on February 8.”

Hong Kong’s privacy watchdog, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data, has repeatedly urged WhatsApp to delay the deadline and better explain the changes to pacify mounting concerns among the public.

Should you worry about WhatsApp’s policy update?

The new privacy rules do not affect WhatsApp’s most central feature: the end-to-end encryption that guarantees only senders and receivers can see the actual content of messages sent on the platform – at least between individuals.

What will be subject to change under the new rules, however, is how user data is managed when engaging with a business account, as opposed to normal users.

For businesses that choose to use Facebook’s servers, data they collect from customers will leave WhatsApp and be shared with Facebook, where it may be used for purposes some object to, such as targeted advertising.

“Whether you communicate with a business by phone, email, or WhatsApp, it can see what you’re saying and may use that information for its own marketing purposes, which may include advertising on Facebook,” said a blog post by WhatsApp outlining the new arrangement.

“We want to be clear that the policy update does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way.”

Some of the changes affecting how a person’s data is handled when engaging with businesses are optional, according to WhatsApp, with users able to opt out. When data is shared with Facebook, users will also receive a notification on the app explaining how it is being used, while businesses using Facebook’s hosting services will be clearly labelled.

“This new rule is fairly modest,” Doffman said.

Dive into WhatsApp’s existing privacy policy, he added, and the updated policy would not seem all that different, as the app already collected a whole host of metadata on any device where it was installed.

Although WhatsApp said it did not share this data with Facebook, Doffman noted that the extent to which that was true was a “grey area”.

Even so, those concerned about privacy could have bigger things to worry about than the new rule, or even WhatsApp itself, he said.

Most of the service’s users also had dozens of other social media apps installed on their phone, such as Facebook Messenger, Snapchat and TikTok – all of which tracked and collected more metadata than WhatsApp, he said.

Another long-standing vulnerability for WhatsApp is that it backs up users’ message history on clouds hosted by Google or Apple, meaning they are no longer encrypted end-to-end once stored on the server.

“I’d be much more worried about all of my data being shared or stored in the cloud than all my messages with businesses being shared with Facebook,” Doffman said.

To switch, or not to switch?

Both Signal and Telegram have been the beneficiaries of WhatsApp’s troubles. According to Signal earlier this week, it continued to “shatter traffic records”, while Telegram said on Tuesday it had added 25 million users in the prior three days. Signal was set up as a non-profit organisation by former WhatsApp co-founder Brian Arton in 2018.

For the time being, however, these platforms are ill-suited to replace WhatsApp entirely, for the simple reason that they cannot yet compete with its base of more than 2 billion users.

Still, over the long term, Doffman said he expected Facebook to continue with its efforts to integrate WhatsApp with two other platforms it owns, Instagram and Messenger, which he feared would only create more problems for its handling of metadata.

“When you look at [Instagram and Messenger’s] metadata collection, you have to take the view that it is not good for WhatsApp to become a part of this three-part messaging platform.” Doffman said.
“If you want a clearly secure messenger, the reality is that Telegram, and especially Signal, better fit that role today. But they don’t have the scale of WhatsApp.”

What the heck is MeWe?

Concerns over WhatsApp’s security are inseparable from a broader distrust of Facebook, which stretches at least back to 2016, when the platform failed to stem widespread disinformation efforts aimed at influencing the US presidential election. That distrust was only compounded for some, particularly conservatives, when the social media giant decided to ban President Donald Trump’s account earlier this month.

That has sparked an exodus from Facebook to alternative social media platforms, most notably the California-based MeWe, which promises users freedom from targeted ads and opaque algorithms governing their newsfeeds.

“Basically, they are focusing on being the opposite of Facebook,” said Michael Gazeley, managing director of the Hong Kong-based cybersecurity firm Network Box Corporation.

“They’re trying to have a revolution, as they call it, offering a platform without any advertisements, no targeting and no manipulation of the newsfeed.”

Hongkongers have proven particularly attractive to MeWe, migrating over to it from Facebook in such numbers over the last two months that a Chinese-language version of the platform was launched recently.

Still, companies as powerful as Google have tried and failed to popularise an alternative to Facebook in the past, and one issue MeWe will face is how to monetise its product at scale.

MeWe currently operates according to a “freemium” model – charging users around HK$40 a month to access all of the site’s features – but Gazeley said he was not confident this model could succeed over the long run.

“MeWe talks about how it’s engineered with privacy by design,” Gazeley said. “Well, look at WhatsApp with how it started – privacy by design – which has now been removed somewhat.”

He added: “It’s good to have all these laudable goals, but in the end, if you can’t keep the lights on, your privacy protections don’t matter.”



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