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I’m sticking with WhatsApp: Here’s Why?

Reading Time: 5 min

Signal and Telegram have become the world’s hottest apps over the last week, because of the growing anxiety over privacy concerns emerging from Facebook’s updates to WhatsApp privacy policy. This move by the Social Media Giant caused a mass exodus as millions of alarmed WhatsApp users switched to Signal and Telegram. [Users in Europe are protected by the General Data Protection Regulation aka GDPR and unaffected by the new policies] According to the web reports, Telegram’s user base grew up to 500 million users worldwide, while Signal now has another 525 million users around the world [Source: The New York Times]. I cannot tell with absolute certainty how the WhatsApp users in Sri Lanka responded except a few friends of mine also left WhatsApp and began using Signal and Telegram. As for me, I have decided to stick with my beloved messaging app for the moment. Here’s why?

Note: This post reflects my personal decision to continue using WhatsApp on the grounds mentioned below. I am not responsible for any damage you or your privacy may suffer by continuing to use the app for communications.

Highly Inaccurate Reports

Followed by the controversial privacy policy update a small number of blogs reported Facebook is planning to eavesdrop on WhatsApp users. This is not true because every form of communication happening within the network is secured with end-to-end encryption. In layman’s language encryption scrambles the data you transmit through WhatsApp. When protected with end-to-end encryption only the sender’s device and the intended recipient can decrypt or descramble the data. Therefore nobody, not even WhatsApp and Facebook themselves can read my messages or listen to my calls.

Further, as per the company, the update will only affect the messages I send to business accounts on WhatsApp, which it adds is an optional feature. The changes won’t affect my communications with friends and family. It means WhatsApp will use my chats with business establishments to personalize the ads I see on Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms from the company. I can live with it at the moment. For further information, click here and here.

Sharing User Data isn’t New

Although Facebook is known for harvesting user data on a broad scale it isn’t the first company to do so. It won’t be the last either. Besides I am using Facebook, Messenger, and Instagram for several years now. It means I have been sharing my data with the Social Media giant already. You too if you are on Facebook or Instagram.

Apart from Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, there are many other apps I use daily. Such as Uber for transportation and dining, Netflix, and Spotify for entertainment. Uber retains a whopping 52.94% of user data while Spotify retains 35.29% and Netflix retains 26.47%. The reality is there’s no such thing as an app that doesn’t collect user data. If I want to stop using WhatsApp on the grounds of privacy now, I should have stopped using every other app a long time ago.

On the other hand, think about the SMS (Short Message Service) you are using every day. SMS isn’t secure either. Your cellular carrier can see the contents of messages you send and receive. For varying periods of time, store the contents of messages. Messages are mostly stored for a few days only, but they store metadata for much longer (which number sent a message to which number, and at what time). SMS, like fax—is an old, outdated standard that refuses to go away. If you have used SMS in the past chances are high you have been sharing user data already.

Nothing is 100% Bullet Proof

Apart from updates to WhatsApp’s Privacy Policy that enraged its users, it seems a breach of security affecting Private WhatsApp groups is partly responsible for the mass exodus of users. (A similar incident transpired in February 2019.) It’s unclear whether a poorly configured server or another bug is responsible for the leakage. However, former WhatsApp users encouraging others to leave the App is citing this incident as another good reason for switching to Signal or Telegram.

Security is crucial, and a breach is a severe issue. However, it should be noted there’s no such thing as a 100% bulletproof app. For example, on November 6, 2020, EconomyNext reported ICTA (Information and Communication Technology Agency of Sri Lanka) is working on a Contact Tracing Solution to help Health Authorities in their war against COVID 19. On December 15, 2020, Roar Media reported a vulnerability in the same app that allowed anyone to check the information submitted via the app with an API call. ICTA later announced they fixed the identified loopholes, but this could be seen as a sign that security is not absolute but relational to human error and sometimes ignorance.

The worse is yet to come. In the light of all these now that Signal has over 525 million monthly active users and Telegram also crossed the 500 million user milestone, these apps will be targeted by cybercriminals more frequently. There’s no guarantee the security experts will identify the potential vulnerabilities before the bad guys do.

Everything has a Price Tag

I admit Signal and Telegram are better alternatives compared to WhatsApp in terms of security and privacy. However, let’s not forget everything under the sun has a price, and Signal or Telegram is no exception. On February 19, 2014, Facebook bought WhatsApp for 19 billion US Dollars. What guarantee do we have Signal or Telegram will not be purchased by another company as time goes by?

Not all users are Onboard

Although many users have abandoned WhatsApp in record numbers to join Signal and Telegram, all of my important contacts are still using WhatsApp and will not switch anytime soon. Besides, I am in several work-related Groups, it’s hard to anticipate that all group admins will migrate those to another app unless they are convinced it’s essential.

Divided User Loyalties

WhatsApp had two billion users worldwide prior to this unfortunate incident. The app united so many of my contacts through a common platform my smartphone used to indicate most of my contacts are on WhatsApp also. All of these users could share rich multimedia content with me without cluttering their smartphones with another app.

Now my contacts are scattered across three different apps. In order to communicate with them unless I use traditional calls and text messaging I must have Signal and Telegram in my smartphone in addition to WhatsApp. Three different apps, serving the same purpose. Not very productive I am afraid.

Right now, the loyalty of the users leaving WhatsApp is divided between Signal and Telegram. I want to take my time and observe which app becomes more popular, feature-rich, and the best alternative for WhatsApp.

Wrap Up

WhatsApp prompted me to accept their new privacy policy a few days ago, and I accepted the terms to continue to use the app. There’s so much noise surrounding the app; I find it challenging to make an informed decision at the moment. Most of the Individual reports concerning the situation are exaggerated and not accurate. Therefore, I will stick with this once used to be a favourite messaging app of many worldwide.

By the way, if you are quitting WhatsApp just because the app will be sharing your information with Facebook (which owns WhatsApp and already has the info they need on their servers) then the first step would be to quit Facebook, not WhatsApp.

Update: Telegram is Worse

On January 18th, 2021 six days after this blog post, Avast revealed Security researchers have discovered a way to obtain location data from Telegram, which the company has so far insisted that it would not attempt to address. While vulnerabilities are disturbing, it’s even more disturbing when the software vendors are not keen on fixing the vulnerabilities. Then the Wired magazine on January 27th reported the messaging app by default encrypts messages only between the sender’s device and the server meaning the server itself can see the messages unless you manually turn on end-to-end encryption. The picture gets uglier as Telegram is using their own encryption protocol called MTProto instead of standard well-tested protocols. A move considered deeply unwise by Cryptographers.


Comments Policy: Your comments on this post are welcome as long as provided in a diplomatic tone. Comments that are offensive or discriminating will be deleted.

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