WhatsApp has attempted to reassure its two billion-strong user base, even postponing the update by three months, issuing clarifications, and introducing new security features. Yet the company has not inspired much confidence so far.
What was the original announcement all about?
At the beginning of the year WhatsApp, which was acquired by Facebook in February 2014, issued all users with a notification about a privacy update that would change how users could interact with businesses on the messaging service.
“Some businesses will be able to choose WhatsApp’s parent company, Facebook, to securely store messages and respond to customers,” reads the small print. “While Facebook will not automatically use your messages to inform the ads that you see, businesses will be able to use chats they receive for their own marketing purposes, which may include advertising on Facebook.”
The update caused widespread misunderstanding and alarm about whether this amounted to WhatsApp mandating users to share the content of their messages with Facebook. While this was never what the company intended, enough people were spooked that they began to leave the app in droves. After all, the original notification had contained an ultimatum: accept the new terms within the month, or delete your account.
Mass exodus: where are people going?
Perhaps WhatsApp didn’t anticipate that millions of people would do just that – or at least consider it. The backlash was swift and widespread. The Guardian reports that “data tracked by the analytics firm App Annie shows WhatsApp falling from the eighth most downloaded app in the UK at the beginning of the month to the 23rd by 12 January.” In India, one survey across eight cities put the percentage of users considering switching at 79 per cent.
Alternative secure messaging apps rocketed up the download charts (probably also driven by the suspension of social networking service Parler in the wake of the Capitol riots in the USA). Telegram gained a whopping 25 million new users from all over the world in just 72 hours, taking it past the 500 million user mark. Signal was another beneficiary: the app has gained at least 7.5 million new users, no doubt helped by Elon Musk urging his 44 million Twitter followers to “Use Signal”. Not uncoincidentally, Signal is overseen in part by WhatsApp’s original co-founder, Brian Acton, who left the company amidst bitter disagreements over messaging and privacy, according to TechCrunch.
Smaller apps like Threema, Jami, Silence, and Wickr – which is used by the US Department of Defense – have also scooped up some of the users who’ve jumped ship.
Rise and fall
A large part of WhatsApp’s original appeal was its end-to-end encryption, meaning that no government or company – not even WhatsApp itself – could give away the “keys” to people’s private messages because they didn’t have the keys themselves, explained journalist Kate O’Flaherty on a recent episode of The Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast.
If that major selling point is under threat, or perceived to be, the privacy-conscious chunk of its enormous user base will look elsewhere. The level of sustained media attention in this case means that even users who never usually think about encryption might get caught up in the frenzy and decide to uninstall the app, too.
There are plenty of other apps that offer encrypted messaging, and some have many more features and enhanced security. One other thing that distinguishes them is metadata. While WhatsApp cannot read the content of messages or listen to phone calls, it does collect metadata about its users’ behaviours. And since it was acquired by Facebook, concern has grown about how that metadata is being used.
“Metadata is data about data – essentially, the what, where, and when of a message,” said Kate O’Flaherty. Some of this is essential to the running of the app, like a phone number, but much of it is not – and information like location the message was sent from, even if anonymised, can be used to inform advertising or passed on to law enforcement.
Compared with WhatsApp and Facebook, she adds, other apps make much less extensive use of this metadata or simply don’t collect it at all. Signal, for example, stores absolutely no information that is linked to individual users, and one of Threema’s guiding principles is “‘metadata restraint’, which means if there is no data, no data can be misused, either by corporations, hackers or surveillance authorities,” explains an article on Forbes India.
The bigger picture
So why did what was essentially quite a niche update about how businesses can use the WhatsApp chat function backfire so explosively? The strength of the reaction points to changes in society at large.
The world has moved on since the days when no one paid attention to – or even knew about – issues of data privacy. While most of us still don’t read the lengthy terms and conditions when we download an app, awareness about data privacy has risen dramatically. The biggest catalyst was perhaps the US election of 2016, when evidence of Cambridge Analytica’s infamous role in targeted political advertising on Facebook came to light.
“One man at Facebook who does not enjoy the legitimacy of the vote, democratic oversight, or the demands of shareholder governance exercises control over an increasingly universal means of social connection along with the information concealed in its networks,” writes Shoshana Zuboff in her bestselling 2019 book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.
High levels of mistrust in big tech firms often means that people aren’t aware of the restraints that do exist. In the European Union, citizens are protected by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a sweeping and stringent data privacy law which came into force in May 2018. Because of its recent antics, WhatsApp may now face a USD $50m fine under the GDPR, for failing to adequately and transparently inform users about how their data would be shared with Facebook.
Storm in a teacup?
Facebook’s poor track record on privacy has helped fuel the mass migration to other secure messaging apps. It is good to see massive companies taking users’ concerns about privacy seriously, showing that there are consequences to chipping away at personal privacy. The apps that have gained from WhatsApp’s loss may see greater loyalty from their users, given that they have made an active choice to switch and invest in a different service.
Nonetheless, whether this is just a flash in the pan or a sign of a longer-term breakdown in WhatsApp’s popularity depends largely on whether its competitors can reach critical mass. While individuals may be willing to make the leap, social apps necessarily depend on lots of people using them. The fact is, WhatsApp may simply be too entrenched in friend and family networks to see any meaningful movement away from its services.
Most likely, perhaps, is an emergent scenario where it is common for people to use multiple messaging apps for different kinds of chats – similar to subscribing to multiple streaming services. Despite his reservations, Signal’s Brian Acton isn’t urging people to stop using WhatsApp. “I have no desire to do all the things that WhatsApp does. My desire is to give people a choice,” he told TechCrunch recently. “Otherwise, you’re locked into something where you have no choice. It’s not strictly a winner take-all scenario.”