The big WhatsApp Privacy Policy debate - my take

The latest debate around messaging apps has caused polarisation, confusion, stress, and a fair degree of ugliness too. The fact is that it doesn’t matter which “team” you’re on. What matters is that we’re finally having this conversation — exhausting though it is.

The big WhatsApp Privacy Policy debate - my take
Photo by Alexander Shatov / Unsplash

Are you Team WhatsApp? Team Telegram? Or Team Signal? The latest debate around messaging apps has caused polarisation, confusion, stress, and a fair degree of ugliness too.

The fact is that it doesn’t matter which “team” you’re on. What matters is that we’re finally having this conversation — exhausting though it is.

Because it is exhausting. It’s a conversation that’s full of emotional baggage and fear, of personal and family values, of feeling “out of the loop” when it comes to the world of tech and digital privacy… This is new territory for all of us, so can we agree to be kind to one another and not judge each other for changing platforms or not changing platforms? Instead, let’s talk about it.

So if you’re reading this: well done for having the conversation, getting educated, and then making decisions that align with your values.

Unfortunately, decisions around digital privacy can’t simply be made once and for all. There’s no “right answer” to the messenger app debate. The world of tech and digital privacy is so dynamic —  so today’s “right answer” may not be tomorrow’s. We’ve got to keep checking up on the apps we use — this is a journey, not a destination. The best we can do is to get educated on this issue, make informed decisions, and in so doing, keep the tech companies as honest as possible.

I’ve been keeping an eye on WhatsApp since about 2016. Its relationship with Facebook has concerned me, but the two companies have been separate enough for me to live with.

But the change to the WhatsApp Privacy Policy, was my personal “breaking up point” with WhatsApp. You see, I originally signed up to WhatsApp to communicate with my friends and family, and then later it was useful to be on groups. As privacy laws advanced, I was happy when they added end-to-end encryption.

But the new privacy policy means that WA is no longer just a messenger app. It’s becoming an e-commerce platform that’s also going to take the liberty of connecting me with “friends” and businesses that they believe may be useful to me. To do that, it needs to track a whole lot of my usage data. The sum of all of our usage data (not our private chats, I know - but there’s plenty more metadata that they can track) is a very valuable product to sell to businesses. That might sound innocent enough, but it puts a lot of money and power in the hands of Facebook, which makes me… nervous…

You may be OK with this (and that’s totally cool) but I don’t want this new WhatsApp app. I just want a messenger app. So I’m moving.

But now the question arises: Which messaging app is a good alternative?

My choice is Signal. It’s the app that requires the least amount of personal data from me and the data that they collect is not linked to my identity.

The other popular option is Telegram, which has come under some heat of its own. And yes, Telegram is not an ideal alternative in terms of privacy and encryption. But it’s also not owned by Facebook, so that’s why FOR NOW (and that could be the next few days!), I can live with using it for selected groups with my privacy settings set to max. However, this is why personally, I prefer Signal as an alternative and will be using it as my main messaging app. And yes, I’m going to delete my WhatsApp account.

Your choice may be different. So how are we going to connect? And for those of us leaving WhatsApp, what about all of the WhatsApp Groups we were a part of? Well, there are still many ways we can connect — email, SMS, a phone call, or you could choose to install Signal for your “Signal friends.”

In terms of the WhatsApp Groups, I’m hoping that all my favourites will move to Signal. If not, I’ll use this as an opportunity to do a bit of a spring clean of my groups and leave those that I was just lurking in anyway.

And if there’s a group that’s important to me that’s not going to move to Signal, then I’ll raise my hand to start a Signal version of the group. Sure, it’ll probably be smaller, but to me that’s not necessarily a bad thing — I think it could lead to more engagement, more meaningful conversations, and more of a community feel. I’ll let you know if I’m right! Not that there’s ever a right answer, remember? ;)

So whatever you decide after February 8th 2021, I hope that this debate has revealed the importance of staying educated and informed about digital privacy — it certainly has for me. Because of this, I’m going to be taking a much closer look at all of the other apps, services and platforms I use. I’ve got some work ahead of me, but I’ll take it in baby steps!

P.S. I also want to add that Signal gets much of its funding through donations. So if you choose to use the platform, please consider a monthly or once-off donation — you can simply pay what you can.

Update, August 2021: I deleted Telegram from my phone soon after writing this. I disliked it intensely. Facebook/Meta ended up making significant changes to their Privacy Policy, which meant that many people chose to stay on WhatsApp. So I've reluctantly kept WhatsApp on my phone, because I've resigned myself to the fact that I'm not going to lead a migration to Signal or any other platform... sigh... However, I still use WhatsApp with a certain level of caution. I much prefer Signal and I still love using it. So go on, give it a try! ;)