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The Maastricht Diplomat

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Is it time to leave WhatsApp?

As university students, connecting with our friends and classmates through WhatsApp is something most of us do without second thoughts. However, recent events could bring some of us to reconsider our use of this messaging platform.

Starting in early January, Whatsapp announced a major update to its term and conditions. Between then and the actual update on 8th February, many users emigrated from the app. Instead, the messaging apps Telegram and Signal reported a significant growth in new downloads of their messaging apps. This should make us think: should I leave WhatsApp too? And if yes, what app should I use to communicate instead?

What came to mind to a lot of WhatsApp users with this new update is the fear that the company would use this data for commercial purposes, such as targeted ads. This would be another manifestation of what Shoshana Zuboff describes as “surveillance capitalism”, where our every interest is bought and sold to make better consumers out of us.

Zuboff describes this phenomenon as the process in which our personal data is sold as a commodity. To collect them, companies rely on the mass surveillance of our internet activity. Companies such as Facebook or Google, which provide free online services, use this model to make a profit by using our data for commercial purposes, while most of us ignore the depth of the surveillance. In reality, it turns out that because of the end-to-end encryption technology the app uses, it is not possible for WhatsApp to do so.

Yet, this update gives WhatsApp the possibility to collect information such as our battery level information, IP address, browser information, mobile network, phone number and the internet service provider. This is still information we should not wish to share with a huge company like Facebook who is involved in many privacy-related scandals.

Besides these initial controversies, Facebook reminded its users that the update will not apply in Europe because of the European Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). European users have thus far not been asked to consent to this change since the regulation prevents the collection of such data, thus making the update impossible in its current form.

Despite this, an unusual number of European users still decided to leave the popular app and to turn to one of its competitors, principally Telegram and Signal. These two apps have grown in popularity in the last few years but this new update shed light on them once more. However, before making the move to either one of these platforms, they are a few things to consider.

Telegram: not a secure as you would think

Telegram’s user base tends to increase whenever a privacy scandal hits one of its larger competitors. Its functionalities are similar to other messaging apps, but the company prides itself on privacy. However, the app only uses end-to-end encryption in messages for its “secret chat” which are not permanent, while you might remember that WhatsApp already introduced this feature in 2016.

Thus, if you’re not using this feature because you want to be able to re-read your conversations, you might be better off staying on WhatsApp. Telegram, unlike WhatsApp, is not founded through advertising or data collection and sharing and is not owned by a multi-billion dollar company, but it might not be the best option either.

Signal: a better alternative?

An alternative might be Signal. The application is based on the principle of respect for the privacy of its users and uses end-to-end encrypted messages. It also claims that, unlike other apps, it doesn’t have access to your contacts, your groups, your messages or your images. Above all, it’s a non-profit project which means it can’t be resold to big companies or investors. The project relies on donations to function and is in open-source access.

The downside of using Signal is that the application loses some functionality because of its privacy policy. For example, since the data is saved on phones and not in servers, it is impossible to start a conversation on your phone and finish it on your computer or tablet. Nor is it possible to share your location with your contacts.

Nevertheless, it's popularity grew rapidly in the last weeks, and even more since both Elon Musk and Edward Snowden endorsed the app on Twitter. It raises the question whether these public figures make a reasonable point by considering we should leave WhatsApp despite its popularity and accessibility.

Leaving WhatsApp might be a big step out of our comfort zone, given how we are used to connecting with our friends and family through this platform. However, this is nothing we can’t also achieve using one of WhatsApp’s competitors. The announced update may not be available in Europe, but Facebook’s objectives and intentions have not changed. Mark Zuckerberg makes no secret of his intention to merge WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger. He maintains the ambition to tighten the links between all the group's applications.

Facebook’s power lies in its user base and if the loss of its users continues, it could have a considerable impact on the company and send a strong message. In response to the recent events, WhatsApp announced the update would be delayed until May but the app is still continuing to lose users every day. This backlash is proof we can use other alternatives. The privacy policy defended by WhatsApp is too weak to be trusted on the long run so although alternatives might be a bit less user friendly and convenient to use, we should all be thinking about making this shift. Besides, Signal and Telegram are relatively young and still being developed, which means we can hope for their functionalities to improve in the near future.


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