WhatsApp, Signal: Why is everyone suddenly panicking about their data?

 Last week, the introduction of new terms of service on WhatsApp sparked heated controversy among the users most concerned about their personal data. So much so that the app has been dethroned by others, supposedly more privacy-friendly, on download platforms.



As of February 8, users who refuse the new WhatsApp terms of service will no longer be able to access their account (until they change their mind). But why is this particular policy change questioning, where we usually click “accept” without even seeing the new terms?



WhatsApp already shares your data with Facebook since 2016

First, you have to understand that this update of the T & Cs is less anecdotal than it seems. Bought in 2014 by Facebook, WhatsApp has so far enjoyed a somewhat special status in the application ecosystem of Mark Zuckerberg's company. Admittedly, WhatsApp has become a property of Facebook, but no data had previously passed between the two entities, thus respecting WhatsApp's initial promise regarding the confidentiality of exchanges.

However, the situation changed for the first time in 2016. On the occasion of a major update of its terms of use, instant messaging announced that it was going to share the phone number of its users with Facebook, as well as other seemingly unimportant metadata (what type of device is used, for example). At the time, WhatsApp gave its users 30 days to accept or decline this sharing of information between the two companies. In the event of a refusal, the application ensured that this choice would be respected, and that no data would be sent to Facebook.

After this 30-day cooling-off period, the consent of users who had not yet given their opinion on the matter had been validated by default. The same was then true for new WhatsApp users, who the app never asked for permission again before sharing their data with Facebook.



What will change on February 8?

It will not have escaped anyone's notice that Facebook has sought for years to build its services around a common foundation. The desire to create a single messaging service, transversal to Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram also illustrates this project.

While it does not appear to be working to consolidate this particular edifice, the revision of WhatsApp's privacy policy is motivated by the desire to 'operate, provide, improve, understand, personalize, support and market our services', asserts the company. A more cynical way of putting it would be that all the metadata from a WhatsApp account can be thrown into the same cauldron that is already collected by Messenger, Facebook and Instagram.

The goal is to further refine the company's predictive algorithms to make targeted advertising more relevant. It also shows a maneuver to monetize WhatsApp which, despite having some 2.5 billion users worldwide, is not yet making money for its owner.

The nuance of these new terms of service is that Facebook and its affiliates now reserve the right to subsequently share this data with 'third party entities' (other companies) when WhatsApp interacts with them. A process that is obviously invisible to the user, who at this stage no longer has any control over the destination of his personal data.

But what data are we talking about exactly? In detail, this is the phone number of the user, that of all his contacts, the name and profile photo used, messages published in 'status' as well as the timestamp of the last connection. , and various telemetry data from the application logs.



Europe so far spared by these changes

While European users have been offered to accept the new WhatsApp terms of service, it is important to note that their implementation differs from other parts of the world.

In fact, under the barriers erected by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), adopted in 2018, WhatsApp's new privacy policy will only concern holders of a WhatsApp Business account in Europe. In other words: businesses.

A lot of noise for nothing ? Not really. Because as we pointed out in a previous article, this policy change comes a few weeks after Apple reworked the way in which the privacy policies of the applications listed on the App Store are displayed.

Clearer, these now require publishers to list precisely what data is collected on users, and whether or not they allow its identification. A new exercise, in which WhatsApp (and Facebook applications in general) are not, but then not at all comfortable.




What if now is the right time to change your mailbox?

As many other articles on the subject have shown, WhatsApp collects no less than 25 'data points' from its users. While messages and their content remain encrypted and therefore unreadable by anyone other than the recipient, the app can know who you're sending messages to, from where, how often you connect, and more. To put it another way: apart from the content of your messages, there isn't much private on WhatsApp.

However, let's admit that WhatsApp always does better than Messenger, the other big messenger stamped with Facebook, which allows itself to take no less than 160 (!) Data points from its users. In addition, Messenger messages are not encrypted, their content is perfectly readable by anyone authorized to browse Facebook's databases (employees, potential hackers).


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 If, as we said above, there is nothing to be offended by the new privacy policies of WhatsApp, the controversy that resulted has at least had the merit of putting data privacy at the center. public debate, and create a call for air to other messaging services that are more respectful of the privacy of its users.




What are the most privacy-friendly messaging services?

If you've read our extensive file on personal data protection, you already know that the best way to preserve your privacy is not to have a smartphone, and to limit your Internet use as much as possible. But since you are reading these lines (and I am writing these words), it is understandable that this is not an ideal solution in 2021.

Luckily, there are plenty of apps out there that put data privacy above everything else, whether it's note-taking, web browsing or, of course, messaging.

We believe it is important to stress first the importance of data encryption. As we sketched above, if a messaging system does not guarantee end-to-end encryption of exchanges, the messages can be read by the providers of the service in question (for example: Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat, Viber).



Most recommendable: Signal

You've heard this name for days, not daring to ask why everyone is suddenly so excited about a brand of toothpaste. There is nothing to be ashamed of. If you're new to Signal, it's for a simple reason: the app was only popular among the select club of people with a keen interest in data protection on the Internet.

But things have changed recently. As the WhatsApp terms of service debacle reached its peak, one Elon Musk took to Twitter to advise his followers to use Signal. Since then, the app has been at the top of downloads in the 'Social' category of the Google and Apple stores.

Recall that while Elon Musk's recommendation greatly popularized the application, it also owes a great deal to Edward Snowden, who has now been telling anyone who wants to hear it for over six years how much he thinks of Signal.

The application would have registered more than 100,000 new users between January 7 and 8, reports the Reuters news agency. And for good reason: it works more or less the same way as WhatsApp.

Equipped with a very clear interface, it offers the same functionalities as its competitor, while guaranteeing complete encryption of exchanges (WhatsApp also uses the same encryption protocol as Signal). Here, even voice and video calls are end-to-end encrypted. Additionally, the one and only point of data Signal collects about its users is their phone number - needed to create an account. No other information is collected within the application.


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The most tricolor: Olvid

In the same vein as Signal, the French application Olvid deserves a spotlight. Launched in 2018 by Thomas Baignères, this messaging prides itself on being 'the safest in the world' thanks to a unique end-to-end encryption protocol, ensuring not only the security of the messages but also of the metadata linked to them.

How? 'Or' What ? By removing the 'intermediary' represented by the server which, in the case of other encrypted applications, acts as a directory connecting a sender and a recipient. How do two people come into contact then? Simply by exchanging (via another means therefore) a unique four-digit code that acts as an identifier.

So Olvid doesn't even need to collect the user's phone number. In fact, to our knowledge, Olvid is the only messenger that does not collect any personal data from its users.



The most problematic: Telegram

We allow ourselves a digression to overcome a problem of ignorance, or rather of urban legend. No, Telegram is not an encrypted messaging app.

There is indeed a feature that allows end-to-end encrypted messages to be exchanged on Telegram, but it only concerns 'secret exchanges' between two people; an option that is not enabled by default, and that excludes swap groups.

As soon as you are chatting on a Telegram group, or intervening on a channel, messages are available in clear on Telegram's servers. Of course, the company ensures that its servers are encrypted and secure. But the messages are technically no more secure than on Messenger.

However, we can be reassured by saying that, unlike Messenger, we do not find one of the largest companies in the world at the helm. Additionally, Telegram user data is not monetized (but that may soon change) and advertising is absent. All of which can act as a last resort if the goal is to leave WhatsApp and the Facebook ecosystem at all costs.

From there to considering Telegram as a 'safe' messaging to fall back on, there is a chasm. Especially with regard to the other applications mentioned above. However, there is interest in Telegram for its varied functionality, especially in the administration of large newsgroups.




How to migrate friends and family to another app?

This question torments many users, frustrated at having to comply with the wishes of their loved ones who refuse to change platform. Unfortunately, offering to leave WhatsApp or Messenger to friends and family for confidentiality reasons is often to hear people say “I am not interested in it”, or even to be opposed to the custard defense of “ I have nothing to hide anyway ”.

First of all, it's important not to rush things. To let go without warning that you absolutely have to quit WhatsApp for reasons of confidentiality to family members who, for some, do not fully understand the IT tool can be seen as an aggressive injunction. We will advise you to demonstrate pedagogy.

The Internet (including Clubic) has no shortage of resources aimed at educating Internet users about the importance of protecting their personal data. You can also take the example of the Snowden affair, whose revelations about massive CIA espionage left no one indifferent and sparked outrage.

Messenger die-hards, ask them how they feel when someone discreetly observes them typing a message on their smartphone on public transport. Embarrassing, isn't it? Well, that's precisely what Facebook can do if it wants to.

Also remember that Facebook's business model is to accumulate as much data as possible about its users in order to sell them targeted advertising. It’s not us who use Facebook's services for free, it’s Facebook who uses our information for free to earn substantial income.

More radical, you can also clearly announce your intention to quit WhatsApp (or any other application), and indicate to your contacts that you will now be reachable on Signal / Olvid / Telegram or other. Of course, it is possible that some contacts never make the process of reaching you on a new messaging system. But, in experience, the people who care about it most aren't the hardest to convince.


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