Are Telegram, Signal or WeChat better than WhatsApp at protecting privacy?
As is often the case with over-reaction, a rush to alternatives might not yield a better result.
Just look at Telegram, with its nostalgia-rich brand name and a reputation as an easy-to-use WhatsApp clone, which many young people may have already been using, long before the recent WhatsApp commotion. But in general, little was known about the product before the WhatsApp privacy uproar. Now we know that Telegram’s encryption may not be as private as that of WhatsApp or Signal. Apparently, the app’s location-based services may for instance even expose your physical location without your knowledge. See more here: Moving from WhatsApp? Beware of Telegram’s dicey location setting [https://citizen.co.za/lifestyle/technology/2418538/moving-from-whatsapp-beware-of-telegrams-dicey-location-setting/]
WeChat, as a Chinese app, has the added complexity that the Chinese government may very well be listening in. In a January article in The Week Magazine this year, serious questions are posed about WeChat as a WhatsApp alternative: “Considering the amount of data privacy questions asked of apps owned by Chinese companies, WeChat may not be the first option for many who are on the lookout for a WhatsApp alternative.” [https://www.theweek.in/news/sci-tech/2021/01/09/WhatsApp-alternatives-that-you-can-use.html]
The answer to the WhatsApp privacy update is thus not as easy as dumping it for another service. The alternatives all have pros and cons and, dare we says it, staying with WhatsApp may even be the best option for many people.
Privacy is the real issue
In the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), in which we are now firmly entrenched, global information flow is so quick and can be so impactful that even large corporations such as Facebook and WhatsApp can be caught off-guard by the public’s reaction to something seemingly ordinary. As soon as Facebook realised the extent of the backlash against WhatsApp’s perceived privacy invasion, the company announced an implementation extension to 15 May this year to give itself more time to explain the change to users.
As WhatsApp elucidates in an updated blog post [https://blog.whatsapp.com/giving-more-time-for-our-recent-update] about the change, misunderstanding of its new policy is at the heart of the issue: “We’ve heard from so many people how much confusion there is around our recent update. There’s been a lot of misinformation causing concern and we want to help everyone understand our principles and the facts.”
So, was the whole brouhaha just a simple misunderstanding and all is OK now? Well, yes and no. It seems as if the issue arose because WhatsApp was not clear enough in its initial explanation, but it also highlights a significant shift in people’s awareness of and protective attitude towards perceived and/or real invasion of their digital privacy.
Whereas before the latest WhatsApp debacle, people may not have given a privacy update a second glance, the general awareness of big tech that could use private data in invasive ways has never been higher. The main issue is therefore privacy and how to protect it while still being able to use the super convenient technology offered by the large technology players. It’s a fine balance of interests that will increasingly come under scrutiny from users, regulators and governments who all try to strike a balance that protects users while allowing private enterprise to create and deliver useful, easy-to-use services that people want.
There are no simple answers to these vexing questions. But at least we are able to debate the issues thoroughly and become more informed about the services we use, as well as the alternatives that are available. One thing is for certain though, when it comes to the privacy of your messaging app of choice, the app may not be more private on the other side.
Signal or WhatsApp? Here’s how the messaging apps differ and how to decide which one to use