On January 6, Facebook (which owns WhatsApp) issued users of WhatsApp an ultimatum—if they wished to continue using the messaging service, they would have to agree to share their personal information (including their phone number) with Facebook. These changes were to take effect on February 8, 2021, but have been moved to May 15th, 2021 after outraged users started leaving en masse to alternative platforms like Signal and Telegram.
It’s understandable that users are up in arms—a core reason users were drawn to WhatsApp was the promise of privacy. Since 2012, all messages were end-to-end encrypted. This feature was widely lauded. The Electronic Frontier Foundation scored WhatsApp a 6 out of 7 on its 2018 Secure Messaging Scorecard.
Yet privacy has never been a core value at Facebook—so should anyone be surprised that this is happening? Privacy thwarts Facebook’s core business—its reason to exist is to harvest as much personal data as possible. It was only a matter of time before WhatsApp’s dedication to privacy would be kicked to the curb.
So what happens now?
Signal, which is funded by WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton, had 20 million active users in December 2020. As of January 2021, the number of app installations increased to 50 million—prompting a brief interruption of service that has since resumed.
Another alternative service, Telegram, has also had a dramatic uptick. Founded by Russian entrepreneur and former VK CEO Pavel Durov, Telegram is a freeware messaging app that has yet to monetize its service. In October 2019, Telegram had 300 million active users. As of now, Telegram has 500 million active users.
Both Brian Acton and Pavel Durov have been critical of Facebook and WhatsApp in the past. Ironically, Brian Acton sold WhatsApp to Facebook in 2014 (for $19 Billion) and not long after he left the company he acrimoniously tweeted, #DeleteFacebook—seemingly in reaction to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which more than 50 million Facebook users’ data was leaked. In regards to selling WhatsApp, he has stated, “I sold my users’ privacy.”
Telegram founder Pavel Durov became renowned for taking a stand in the name of user privacy when he refused to give Russian police security keys to unlock messages on a phone belonging to someone involved in the 2017 St. Petersburg bombing. In 2019 he said that people should delete WhatsApp to “prevent their messages and photos from being leaked.”
Obviously, it feels like the perfect time for both Signal and Telegram to use WhatsApp’s controversial policy change to recruit new users.
A Challenge to Dominance?
Facebook has already shown a willingness to buy competitors. One reason Facebook bought WhatsApp is that Facebook’s own branded Messenger service was unable to secure market dominance. The $19 billion buy-out of WhatsApp changed the company’s trajectory.
Should Facebook feel threatened again? Perhaps Zuckerberg will be willing to open his chequebook to acquire Signal or Telegram. The same story that played out with WhatsApp in 2014 could be happening all over again. Facebook is always ready and willing to buy its way to dominance and destroy privacy in the process.
The Internet’s Achilles Heel: Centralization
As dedicated as Signal and Telegram are to privacy, the reality is that they’re only “baby” WhatsApps. They’re sitting ducks for whichever Big Tech company wants to buy them out and exploit their users. As WhatsApp has shown—privacy can be altered with a policy change.
WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram are actually all vulnerable to privacy issues because they’re centralized messaging services. This means that they require client-server/server-client communication. To put that in plain terms, all these apps act as middlemen—interfacing messages between two end-points—even if the messages themselves are encrypted. With a few modifications, data harvesting of private messages is quite easy to do.
How can emerging messaging apps avoid WhatsApp’s potential downfall?
The obvious answer is to make privacy a core value. This goes beyond encryption. It requires peer-to-peer networking as well as user control and ownership of personal data. Until every person can establish a self-sovereign identity on the Internet, the pillaging of our data and privacy will continue.