How Private are Messaging Apps in the Age of 4IR?

Wednesday, 10 March 2021


How Private are Messaging Apps in the Age of 4IR?

Unfounded hysteria or genuine cause for alarm?

When WhatsApp announced its requirement for user acceptance of a new privacy policy at the start of 2021, originally slated for implementation by 8 February 2021, panic ensued. Almost overnight people around the world started downloading and installing alternative messaging apps such as Telegram, Signal, WeChat and others. Fearmongering on social media was in overdrive with people dreading a perceived threat that WhatsApp owner Facebook will be within its rights to have access to private messages and other personal, private details shared via WhatsApp, after users accept the new policy. WhatsApp also threatened deletion of WhatsApp accounts if users did not accept the changed policy.

Within days Telegram and Signal reported tens of millions of new downloads. All of a sudden everyone was signalling their intent to move away from WhatsApp to… anything else. With the aid of social media’s rapid, automatic amplification of trending topics, an anti-WhatsApp sentiment was quickly gaining traction across the globe. But most people didn’t really understand exactly what WhatsApp intended to share with Facebook and other companies under its control. They were just, simply, terrified of the idea that Facebook was going to be able to read, store and share perceived private data (messages, phone numbers and other personal information).

Little thought was given to the alternatives. Is Telegram, a Russian app run from Dubai, any better at protecting your privacy than WhatsApp? (Read more: Telegram Chief Pavel Durov Reports 25 Million New Users in Three Days Following WhatsApp Privacy Policy Change []

Or what about Signal, a messaging app known for its superior open-source encryption technology that ensures a high level of privacy as messages cannot be read by third parties, while being quite difficult to use?

By the way, Signal is owned and operated by a non-profit organisation called Signal Foundation, co-founded by WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton. According to Forbes, WhatsApp uses Signal’s encryption protocol, albeit in a proprietary deployment. (Read more: Signal Vs Telegram — 3 Things You Need To Know Before You Quit WhatsApp [])

WeChat, the huge Chinese messaging app has a South African connection in Naspers, the majority owner of Prosus, a Netherlands-based company that owns about 30% of WeChat parent Tencent. (Remarkably, Prosus is currently one of the world’s pre-eminent investors in technology companies and owns or has large stakes in businesses such as OLX, Autotrader, Letgo, Udemy and many others.)

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 []

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.” []

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 [] 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, what are these misunderstood facts, as explained by WhatsApp? Simply put, private messages are encrypted and stay private. The crux of the privacy policy change relates to “new options people will have to message a business on WhatsApp and provides further transparency about how we collect and use data,” according to the blog post. It means that messages between you and businesses you interact with on WhatsApp can be stored by these businesses on servers owned and operated by Facebook. The privacy update therefore seemingly only deals with business interactions, not personal ones.

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.

Read more

Read the full new WhatsApp privacy policy here

Further reading: WhatsApp Delays Updated Privacy Policy After Confusing Users

Signal or WhatsApp? Here’s how the messaging apps differ and how to decide which one to use


Prof. Ylva Rodny-Gumede (Facilitator)

Ylva Rodny-Gumede (Facilitator) is the Senior Director: Division of Internationalisation and also Professor in the School of Communication at the University of Johannesburg.

She is a Senior Associate Researcher with the Stanhope Centre for International Communications Policy Research at the London School of Economics. She holds a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University as well as an MA degree in Politics from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and an MA in Journalism from Cardiff University in the U.K. Ylva is a former journalist and has also worked in marketing and PR. In addition, she has consulted for several government, private and academic institutions in Europe and Southern Africa on issues concerning media and democracy, including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education, and the SADC Parliamentary Forum. Ylva holds a C 3 rating from the South African National Research Foundation (NRF) and is the current President of the South African Communications and Media Association (SACOMM).

Prof Basie von Solms

Prof SH (Basie) von Solms is a Research Professor in the Academy for Computer Science and Software Engineering at the University of Johannesburg in Johannesburg, South Africa.

He is the Director of the Centre for Cyber Security at the University of Johannesburg as well as an Associate Director of the Global Cybersecurity Capacity Centre of the University of Oxford in the UK. Basie was a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council for Cyber Security.

Prof von Solms is a Past President of IFIP, the International Federation for Information Processing ( He is a Fellow of the Institute for IT Professionals (IITP) of South Africa, a Fellow of the British Computer Society, a Fellow of the Oxford Martin School of the University of Oxford and a Chartered Information Technology Professional in the UK.(CITP).

Prof von Solms specializes in research and consultancy in the area of Information and Cyber Security, Critical Information Infrastructure Protection, Cyber Crime and other related cyber aspects.

Lebo Lion

Lebo Lion, a digital marketer, podcasting pioneer, digital philanthropist, and strategist whose passion for the African continent, social media expertise, and study of African consumer behaviour, has led her to transform over 1000 South African start-ups, small to medium businesses, through her global top 100 iTunes podcast; LESSONS WITH LION.

Her extensive work with powerful corporate brands & pop-culture movements are the foundation upon which her rapidly growing twitter brand: @LeboLion_SA is based on. Channelling the lessons she learned when she started her own Tech Company, Lebo Lion now runs a Marketing & PR agency called BEOPLE which specialises in building authentic brands & impactful social media & influencer marketing campaigns.

Bongani Sithole

Bongani is a tech-entrepreneur with a post-grad in Computer Science. Over the last 18 years, he built 3 technology businesses from the ground-up. He’s currently an executive at Founders Factory Africa – building 88 tech-enabled startups across Africa with a focus in Health, FinTech and agriTech. His team “Makers Lab” is helping startups to get to Product Market Fit and be positioned for capital raise.

He is a strategic thinker in bridging the gap between business needs and technology and thus helping brands to grow their competitive advantage in the market. He worked with some of the big brands in Africa like Standard Bank, Netcare, MTN and BWM. In the last two years through Founders Factory Africa, we have built and supported over 20 startups in the financial and health sectors across the major African markets (South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda & Ghana).

He believes there’s always a different approach to solving problems.