- WhatsApp has updated its policies for users.
- Signal has emerged as a possible alternate.
- Signal is claimed to be more secure.
If you are not paying for the product, you are the product I woke up on Wednesday to multiple tweets highlighting and almost reminding others of this popular quote from Netflix's 2020 documentary 'Social Dilemma'. Why this untimely reminder? Most of these social media users woke up to an in-app notification from WhatsApp informing them about platform's updated policies (terms of service and privacy), which are mandatory to accept if you want to continue using the app.
Just the fact that users are left with limited options is scary. The details are scarier. The update policies have added new sections about Transactions and Payments Data as well as Location Information. It has also made it clear that information and data can be collected and shared with Facebook companies, if WhatsApp believes it is needed.
There is no doubt that WhatsApp has penetrated in a way that no other messaging app has managed to and the reliance on the platform has increased over the years, both for personal and professional communications. This is why mainstream users have stuck to the platform despite its share of controversies and shady practices.
Probably, this time WhatsApp has gone a bit too far, taking users for granted. It is claiming to collect more data than before including battery level, signal strength, app version, and identifiers unique to Facebook Companies. All of these can be used by not just WhatsApp but also Facebook companies. And, we know that the platforms have been prone to hacks and data leaks in the past.
It's also the tone that WhatsApp uses in some of its terms that raises a few eyebrows. It says that you need to give access to your location data if you want to continue sharing location with your friends and family. Fair enough. But, it further adds that if you refuse to do so, the platform will anyhow collect information like IP addresses and phone number area code to figure out your location.
A similar tone also reflects in the line where WhatsApp mentions what happens to your data once the account is deleted. It is clearly saying that your data will not be wiped off immediately after deleting your WhatsApp account and users will have to dig deeper for the same. Come on WhatsApp, how many users will actually be able to understand and perform this action!
Is it time to move on?
This isn't the first time when WhatsApp users are asking this question. Something similar happened couple of years back when the Facebook-owned platform sued the cybersecurity company NSO for over $75,000 in damages alleging that the Israeli firm illegally used WhatsApp servers to sneak Pegasus into phones belonging to 1,400 users across 20 countries. Several users from India, including journalists, activists, lawyers and senior government officials, were also hit by the attack.
Back then, Telegram had emerged as a possible alternative to WhatsApp. The messaging app became popular by claiming that offers end-to-end encryption. This means that the conversations can only be seen by the sender and receiver. The platform has grown since then but is dealing with its own set of issues, one of which is piracy.
Telegram is allegedly being used by several notorious users to circulated pirated movies and a solution about that is yet to be found. It has also been on the radar for some time over its use for sharing music illegally.
There have been other options too in the past be it WeChat or Hike. But, none of these have managed to go past the initial fame, let aside the possibility of competing with WhatsApp. Another factor is that WhatsApp has become more accessible and users have years of chat history on the app which is not easy to save or export to another platform.
So where do we stand now? The next in line is the Signal recently brought to limelight by world's richest man Elon Musk. Soon after WhatsApp updated its policies, Musk tweeted "Use Signal". This messaging app has also come to the forefront because of its privacy-focussed approach. It is widely used by the security experts, privacy researchers, academics, and others around the world.
WhatsApp vs Signal
There have been general beliefs and claims that Signal is more secure than WhatsApp but Apple's new privacy labels give a clear picture of the same. For those unaware, these labels not only require app developers to reveal what data is being collected by the platform but also to explain how it is being used.
Thanks to this, we know that data collected by WhatsApp includes Phone Number, Email Address, Contacts, Coarse Location, Device ID, User ID, Advertising Data, Purchase History, Product Interaction, Payment Info, Crash Data, Performance Data, Other Diagnostic Data, Customer Support, Product Interaction, Other User, Content, Metadata.
This is significantly more than what is being asked by other apps.
On the contrary, Signal is not asking for anything. The platform only requires your phone number for registration but doesn't link it directly to your identity. If you check the app on the App Store it states that there is no data linked to you. However, another major difference between the two platforms is that Signal is open source, while WhatsApp is not.
At this point, you might be wondering why more users are not switching to Signal instead of WhatsApp. This takes me back to the initial point of penetration. WhatsApp is no more a noun, it is a verb. Users don't just say "send it to me on WhatsApp". The more frequently used phrase is "WhatsApp me". This is how much dependent most are on the app.
Also, the policies and terms of services are usually full of jargons that are difficult to understand for everyone. This gives a free pass to many platforms, not just WhatsApp. What the new policies do is that they bring the platform back to the witness box and also make it clear that WhatsApp is no more an independent platform but just another Facebook product.