It's Time to Leave WhatsApp Behind

You probably use WhatsApp. That's not a lucky guess, it's a calculated one - WhatsApp is currently the world’s most popular messaging app, with over two billion active monthly users.

It's also the 3rd most downloaded mobile app of the last decade.

You might have also heard of WhatsApp's new privacy policy update. But I'd be willing to bet you gave up reading more about it. That's what most of us do when faced with controversial documents that are this fun to read.

Well, if your'e still here, your'e in luck. I'm gonna lay out the important parts, and explain briefly why this update is bad (albeit not as bad as you might have thought), and why now is a perfect time to consider switching to an alternative, preferably Signal.

A very quick recap

WhatsApp was founded in 2009 with the idea of a free, fast and simple to use direct messaging app, and quickly amassed a surprisingly large user base.

Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014.

Two years later, in 2016, they started sharing a limited amount of users data between WhatsApp and Facebook - most importantly, your phone number. There was also a possibility to opt-out, but it was temporary and really well hidden.

Fast-forward to today. In two weeks, a new policy will take effect. It's quite controversial.

In India, the CCI is seeking to veto it; in Germany, regulators claim it might be illegal; and Italy’s data protection agency has issued a warning concerning its obscurity.

Facebook, however, insists there's nothing to worry about.

Let's dig in.

What does the new privacy policy say?

In short, WhatsApp will start collecting more of your data and sharing it with Facebook - specifically email addresses, IP addresses, device information, OS and browser data, search history, device ID, battery status, group images and descriptions, your personal image and status, usage metrics and even chats content when you talk to business accounts.

Yup, that's a lot.

And that's not even the full list.

One important thing, however, stays private for now: the content of your chats with friends and family. It's not obvious, and for some of us, that might just be enough to stay.

Why leave, then?

Well, of the stuff listed above, there are already several good reasons for everybody to be on their hind legs.

For one, Facebook is not exactly famous for respecting the privacy of its users. They're also known for failing to securely protect the data they collect, time and time again (and these are just examples from the last 3 years).

But while collecting all this data and storing it irresponsibly is obviously bad, it's not the worst part. That would be the sharing element.

See, your data from WhatsApp will be shared with Facebook, and with companies owned by Facebook (ie. Instagram, and several web analytics providers that probably already know a surprising amount about you). This combined treasure trove of personal data will be used by Facebook for assembling a profile of your habits, interests and personality.

The reasoning is, of course, selling ads. The more personal info they gather about you, the better they can target you. Nothing new here. But apart from being very creepy, this time it will be way more dangerous for the users when the data leaks. No data is fully secure, And in Facebook's case, that seems like an understatement.

Finally, it's a safe bet that the worst is yet to come. Silently sneaking on users with discrete policy changes is no longer a common practice thanks to swift regulations and a growing public awareness, but habituating users to lower standards, one step at a time? You bet. The new terms already include a part hinting at possible future ads in WhatsApp.

This time there is no opt-out; you either agree or you're out. I'm personally very reluctant to agree to these terms, especially given the abundance of other messaging apps that are just as good.

We just need to get more people to use them.

Let's explore some alternatives

Skipping the horde of collaboration-oriented messaging apps that's been blooming lately (Slack, Discord, Mattermost, Wickr Me etc.), we can move on to the apps that are truly WhatsApp-esque in nature.

Telegram seems to be the first alternative that comes to mind for most people. And while better in many aspects, Telegram disappoints in others, Most evidently in failing to implement end-to-end encryption of messages. I mean, come on, it's basically standard now. Even WhatsApp has had it since 2014. And on top of that, Telegram does collect a bit of info about users.

So let's search further.

Probing the stockpile of other tech conglomerates, we find Google Messages (which is, expectedly, colossal privacy-wise) and iMessage, which will force you to neglect your friends who don't own Apple products. Skype can be skipped as it's not really WhatsApp-analogous.

Enter Signal

It's free. It's open-source. It's simple enough to use for your grandma to pick it up without noticing it's a different app. It's more secure than WhatsApp, and it collects no data about you whatsoever.

Signal started out as RedPhone in 2010, and went through several stages before becoming Signal in 2015. It's funded entirely by grants and donations, and it's backed by a non-profit co-founded by Brian Acton, one of the guys who founded WhatsApp.

There are, of course, other messaging apps offering true privacy and security. But none of them are as popular, widely used or capable as Signal, which is growing more rapidly then ever since the expected WhatsApp update was announced.

I've been using Signal for the past several months, and I really like it. Experience-wise, it's basically a WhatsApp look-alike with minor differences. All of my friends who have moved over also agree.

And we're in good company.

Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, openly endorses Signal, and so do business magnate Elon Musk, whistleblower Edward Snowden, Oscar-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras, and renowned security expert Bruce Schneier.

In fact, thanks to the big 2019 Facebook leak, it was revealed that Mark Zuckerberg himself uses Signal.

That's understandable, given that Zuckerberg probably can't afford to have his personal data and conversations monitored or leaked.

But then, most of us wouldn't want that.

So why not move?

The new WhatsApp privacy policy will take effect on May 15th. If you care, give Signal a try, and encourage your friends and family to try it too. Signing up is super quick, and you'll be helping popularize a better, more trustworthy messaging platform.