To WhatsApp or Not – Please Telegram me a Signal

Announcing changes to the WhatsApp Terms of Service resulted in people rushing to register on alternative platforms such as Telegram and Signal, while not-yet-quitting the popular chat service.

I do wonder though, how many actually made time to read the changed Terms of Service, as well as the Terms of Services for Telegram and/or Signal?

In trying to settle some nerves, a quick privacy lesson and my answer to some of the concerns and issues.

It is quite a costly exercise to establish, maintain and run chat services such as WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram. These services are provided to you for FREE, and as we all know, free services in cyber space means you are in fact, the commodity. In this specific case, the price you pay is your digital profile. In other words, your habits, and preferences, such as which pages you access while on Facebook, which contacts do you spent the most time with, how often do you contact specific groups, what times during the day are you most active, the screen size used, keywords used, search terms used, etc. This profile provides Facebook with the ability to direct ads that will catch your attention. Targeted advertising means you are more likely to spend your time and money and the more accurate your profile, the more money for them.

Profiling has been around for some time, and frankly your profile (or parts thereof) is already available to the social giants if you’re using services such as Gmail, Google, Facebook, Instagram, etc. It is not pure coincidence if searching for flights on example Google, you will start receiving flight ads on Facebook.

Sharing of Information

No, your chats with your mom and your lover is safe, and WhatsApp will not be sharing the details thereof on Facebook. (Although for the latter I don’t think WhatsApp is the ideal choice).

WhatsApp states that nothing you share, including messages and photos will be shared on Facebook or on WhatsApp, unless by your choice and doing. This means that what you share on Facebook will stay on Facebook, and what you communicate on WhatsApp, will stay on WhatsApp. Facebook obtained WhatsApp in 2014 and is in the process of integrating WhatsApp to Facebook as a substitute for Facebook Messenger, and therefor (in part) the updated Terms of Service.

Access to Information

No, WhatsApp does not have access to your bank details or your hidden Bitcoin account, or your other applications, unless shared by you. The only reference to bank information is if the WhatsApp payment functionality is used, a service which are not currently available in South Africa.

WhatsApp do have access to your mobile number and your contact list, which you gave permission to when registering for the service. Geolocation information is required if you want to use functionalities such as dropping a pin or sharing a live location. So, again, you most probably already agreed to providing such type of information.

Alternatives

If you are convinced that big brother is watching and want to make a run, there are a range of alternative platforms available. However, please study their Terms of Services, usability, functionality, security, and their history of breaches and how it was handled. Each come with pros and cons. For example, Telegram that allow basically anyone to access public groups, is also utilized by criminal entities to distribute illegal content and goods. Access to such groups and content are easy, and with no parental control in place, parents may have to be concerned.

Signal and Telegram are not the only ones though, one can also consider Seecrypt and Threema.

Business & Compliance

Compliance to privacy regulations such as POPIA and GDPR, means businesses have to ensure that PII (personal identifiable information), that are captured, processed and communicated when using a chat services adheres to the specific regulations.

Business accounts that utilize WhatsApp to communicate with clients and partners, must be aware that WhatsApp has access to the complete contact list (whether the contact uses WhatsApp or not). This raises a red flag in terms of complying to privacy regulations.  

Conclusion

In conclusion, don’t rush off without realizing the impact. By blindly installing additional applications will only extend your risk exposure, as your information is now shared with yet another service. Most people are used to using WhatsApp and will continue using it, as their current digital profile is already shared. A potential move means that your network also has to move. A quick calculation of the people and groups (from school to local neighborhood’s) in your network with whom you communicate via WhatsApp, will make you realize the extent of this. (I’m also not convinced Granny is up to learning and moving to a new chat service that easily, so most will be forced to keep on using WhatsApp if they want part of any inheritance)

Business owners, however, needs to incorporate a chat service that does ensure their compliance with POPIA, and GDPR, amongst others.

For any questions, concerns or assistance, feel free to Signal the CSI team.