WhatsApp fights back over privacy concerns as users jump to Telegram, Signal

Location data and message contents are encrypted end to end, according to WhatsApp.
Location data and message contents are encrypted end to end, according to WhatsApp.PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - Messaging giant WhatsApp reassured its users on Tuesday (Jan 12) that it was still respecting their privacy, in the wake of terms and policy changes announced last week that drove many people globally, including in Singapore, to turn to rival chat apps.

The changes allow some WhatsApp data to be shared with parent company Facebook.

On Tuesday, Facebook executives like Instagram chief Adam Mosseri tweeted that "there is a lot of misinformation about the WhatsApp (terms of service)" and that the policy update "does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way".

The changes are related to messaging a business on WhatsApp, which is optional, he added.

WhatsApp stressed that neither it nor Facebook can read users WhatsApp chats nor hear their calls because they are encrypted. This also applies to chats consumers have with businesses over WhatsApp. Some companies can choose to securely store the messages on Facebook's servers to help them manage the chats.

WhatsApp assured that Facebook will not automatically use consumers' chats with merchants to determine the advertisements these people see. But a company can use the data for its own marketing purposes, such as ads on Facebook.

Even then, Facebook cannot target general ads in a similar way to these users, a WhatsApp spokesman told The Straits Times on Wednesday.

But privacy experts said that concerns and uncertainty over how people's WhatsApp data would be used with the policy changes resulted in a spike in interest for other messaging apps perceived as having better privacy features.

Telegram said that its app has had more than 500 million monthly active users in the first weeks of January and "25 million new users joined Telegram in the last 72 hours alone", AFP reported. WhatsApp has over 2 billion users.

In Singapore, Telegram and Signal rose in the Apple App Store and Google Play charts, based on daily downloads after WhatsApp's announced changes last Wednesday.

On Google Play, Signal jumped to No. 1 for all apps on Sunday in Singapore. A week before, Signal was not among the top 100 apps, said analytics firm App Annie.

The iPhone version of the app reached the top spot on Jan 9 for all iOS apps, when the week before it was not in the top 1,000.

As for Telegram, it reached No. 2 on the Google Play overall apps charts on Monday, up from No. 12 the week before.

On Tuesday, it was the No. 2 app overall in the App Store, up from No. 13 a week earlier here.

Some users who turned to such alternatives cited WhatsApp privacy concerns like data mining by the app and Facebook. Mrs Sophia Ong, 39, self-employed educator, joined Telegram in the past week.

Some of her group chats had migrated to Telegram, and she moved with them, although she still retains her WhatsApp account as many of her contacts still use the messaging app.

"I'm kind of peeved, but resigned as well because, at the end of the day...there's no such thing as a free lunch," she said, referring to how WhatsApp is free to use.

Mr Jonathan Kok, a technology lawyer at Withers KhattarWong, said that it is unlikely WhatsApp's changes violate the Personal Data Protection Act here as it has been upfront in informing consumers that it is making the changes, ahead of time.

He noted that WhatsApp has already been sharing data with Facebook for many years now, mainly technical information, after it acquired the messaging service in 2014. But he acknowledged that policies could change in the future to let WhatsApp monetise users' data by directly advertising to them. WhatsApp does not currently allow ads.

Users worried about privacy and want to opt out of WhatsApp likely need to stop using Facebook too, since there is some data sharing.

"Even if Facebook has all this information and wants to use it, they are not going through WhatsApp to do that, they will use it on Facebook accounts," said Mr Kok.