WhatsApp Privacy Scandal

By Sadira Sittampalam | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 30 2021
Tech Talk WhatsApp Privacy Scandal

By Sadira Sittampalam

WhatsApp has recently lost millions of its users following a new update to its terms and conditions which concerned certain privacy policies. The update, which has now been delayed from February 9th to May 15th, was to be rolled out worldwide, save for Europe and the UK which has strict data protection laws. The news of this update had many users jump ship onto other similar messaging platforms such as Telegram or Signal. But what exactly does this update do and how much better are these other platforms?

What exactly does the update do?

There has been a lot of confusion as to what the WhatsApp privacy policy does and WhatsApp themselves have said that they would delay the release of the update to quell any doubts people might have with their privacy policy. They have released a statement emphasising that what you share with your family and friends stays between you, highlighting that they will continue to protect personal conversations with their end-to-end encryption so that neither WhatsApp nor their parent company Facebook, will be able to see these private messages. They continued saying that they do not keep any sort of logs about who everyone is messaging or calling.

So then why did everyone freak out at the update if it doesn’t seem to be affecting any of your private messaging? Well, it seems to be more out of confusion and WhatsApp’s poor communication than anything else. It started with the pop-up which informed users of the new updates which included a mention of how WhatsApp partners with Facebook. The pop-up also came with an ultimatum which instructed users to delete their account if they didn’t agree with the new terms, which essentially gave people the idea that they were being forced into more invasive terms (particularly with Facebook’s terrible track record when it comes to privacy).

The actual changes to the privacy policy seem to be more for their new business features which means that they will be collecting some data of yours when you talk to large businesses on WhatsApp. What exactly is this data? It is metadata like your operating system you use, phone model, screen resolution, IP addresses, language, coarse location (which essentially means which city you are in, but not your actual location. The reason for the connection with Facebook is due to the fact that some large businesses need to use hosting services to manage their communication. Thus, these businesses will be using secure hosting services from Facebook to help manage WhatsApp chats with their customers. The businesses that do use hosting services from Facebook will be the chats that WhatsApp/Facebook will be able to see and they may use that information for marketing purposes, which may include advertising on Facebook. So in a nutshell, for the user, the most likely effect of this change will be more targeted ads across Facebook-owned platforms like Messenger, Instagram, and Facebook.

Should you still move to another messaging platform?

All in all, while your private conversations are protected on WhatsApp, there are lots of alternative messaging platforms that value your privacy a lot more. I should also take this time to warn you of how lax the privacy policies of Messenger are because they basically analyse everything about your chats, the links you send, and even the files you upload and send in order to better advertise products. If you still use messenger and are concerned about your privacy - you should reconsider using it. Facebook and its companies have proven that they do not really value your privacy that much, and moving away from these companies would be in your best interest.

Telegram vs Signal

This month, both Telegram and Signal have received a huge amount of new users with Signal getting 7.5 million users in the first three weeks of the year, while Telegram gained more than 25 million. Now if you are looking at which platform is the best in terms of privacy, nothing beats Signal.

The signal does not collect any of your data, only your phone number. It is also free, with no ads on the platform which is all funded by a non-profit organisation, Signal Foundation. It is also an open-source development, which means that its software is open for everyone to see. This messaging app has also been used by privacy icons like Edward Snowden for years. Signal’s main function is that it can send, to either an individual or a group, fully encrypted text, video, audio, and picture messages. Thus, when it comes to privacy, it is hard to beat. Even beyond its hard encryptions, it gives you extended on-screen privacy options, including app-specific locks, blank notification pop-ups, face blurring anti-surveillance tools along disappearing messages.

However, this is not without its fair share of bugs. Nevertheless, Signal’s reputation has kept it on the top of almost every privacy savvy person’s list. Many prominent newspapers such as The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal all recommend using Signal to contact their reporters safely.

Meanwhile, Telegram falls somewhere in the middle of the privacy scale, but it does offer certain other benefits to do with the make of its platform. It does not collect as much data as WhatsApp, collecting only your name, phone number, contact list, and user ID. However, it doesn’t offer encrypted group calls like WhatsApp. It also doesn’t offer as much user data privacy and company transparency as Signal. Telegram also collects your IP address and unlike Signal and WhatsApp, Telegram’s one to one messages aren’t encrypted by default, you actually have to go activate them in the settings. Furthermore, while some of Telegram’s encryption, ‘MTProto’, is open source, some portions are not, which means that we don’t exactly know what happens to your texts once they enter Telegram’s servers.

Nevertheless, Telegram does have more of a social media-style environment on its platform. You can also delete texts whenever you want for both you and the person you sent it to with no indication you deleted it, and you can also edit texts. Furthermore, Telegram offers free unlimited cloud storage which is pretty convenient. However, Telegram has still seen a lot of security breaches. In 2020 March, around 42 million Telegram user IDs and phone numbers were exposed, which was thought to be the work of Iranian Government officials. Even in 2019, Chinese authorities exploited a bug during the Hong Kong protests. Then even there was a deep-fake bot on Telegram that has been allowed to create forged nudes of women from regular pictures. Most recently, there was a GPS-enabled feature allowing you to find others near you, which needless to say has created obvious problems for privacy.

Overall, at this point, anything seems better than WhatsApp as Facebook as a company has shown that they don’t value our privacy. While there may be some concerns with Telegram right now, nothing seems as serious as WhatsApp, with Signal remaining unbeatable in terms of privacy.

By Sadira Sittampalam | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 30 2021

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