But a wave of misinformation on social media, not helped by Facebook’s abysmal track record on privacy and its reputation for obfuscating changes to its various terms of service agreements, has resulted in a full-blown WhatsApp backlash that has users fleeing to competitors like Signal and Telegram.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has even jumped into the fray, tweeting last week “Use Signal” to his more than 42 million followers. As the controversy has grown, Signal has become one of the most downloaded apps on Android and iOS and its verification system for signing up new users has repeatedly buckled under the pressure. Telegram, which is currently No. 2 behind Signal on the App Store, saw more than 25 million new users sign up in just the last 72 hours.
Telegram surpassed 500 million active users. 25 million new users joined in the last 72 hours: 38% came from Asia, 27% from Europe, 21% from Latin America and 8% from MENA. https://t.co/1LptHZb9PQ
— Telegram Messenger (@telegram) January 12, 2021
WhatsApp executives, as well as Instagram chief Adam Mosseri and Facebook AR / VR head Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, are now trying to set the record straight, perhaps to little avail at this point.
There is a lot of misinformation about the WhatsApp ToS right now. The policy update does *not* affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way. The changes are related to messaging a business on WhatsApp, which is optional. https://t.co/b7szUeinKX
— Adam Mosseri (@mosseri) January 12, 2021
“We want to be clear that the policy update does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way. Instead, this update includes changes related to messaging a business on WhatsApp, which is optional, and provides further transparency about how we collect and use data,” the company writes on the new FAQ page.
It also stresses in the FAQ that neither Facebook nor WhatsApp read users’ message logs or listen to their calls, and that WhatsApp doesn’t store user location data or share contact information with Facebook. (It’s also worth noting that data sharing with Facebook is extremely limited for European users due to stronger user privacy protections in the EU.)
WhatsApp chief Will Cathcart also took to Twitter a few days ago to post a thread (later shared by Bosworth in the tweet above) trying to cut through the confusion and explain what’s actually going on.
“With end-to-end encryption, we cannot see your private chats or calls and neither can Facebook. We’re committed to this technology and committed to defending it globally,” Cathcart wrote. “It’s important for us to be clear this update describes business communication and does not change WhatsApp’s data sharing practices with Facebook. It does not impact how people communicate privately with friends or family wherever they are in the world.”
That’s why we are so committed to end-to-end encryption, and why we keep improving the privacy of WhatsApp, such as with our launch of disappearing messages in November. Our innovation on privacy will continue.
— Will Cathcart (@wcathcart) January 8, 2021
A bit of irony in all of this is the data sharing WhatsApp users are so keen to avoid has already likely been happening for a vast majority of those who use the messaging platform. The company let users opt out of data sharing with Facebook for only a brief amount of time back in 2016, two years after Facebook purchased the platform.
After that, new sign-ups and those who didn’t manually opt out of data sharing have had some WhatsApp information, principally their phone number and profile name, shared with the larger social network for ad targeting and other purposes. (If you did opt out, WhatsApp says it will honor that even after the February 8th update, according to PCMag.)
If you look at the privacy labels for WhatsApp on the App Store, labels Apple only last month began forcing developers to disclose, you’ll see scores of information that is marked as “data linked to you,” although only a unique device ID and app usage data is listed as used for “developer’s advertising and marketing.” (WhatsApp tried publicly calling Apple out for not making its own first-party apps adhere to the same standards, only for Apple to reply that it does in fact list privacy labels for the iOS apps it develops.)
This whole controversy may be chalked up to users misreading confusing media reports, jumping to conclusions, and then participating in scaremongering on social media. But it’s also a reality Facebook must contend with that the lack of trust in WhatsApp is directly related to years of bad faith privacy pledges from Facebook and increasingly complex terms of service agreements no regular, non-lawyer user can reasonably comprehend.
It’s no wonder then that users are flocking to an app like Signal — managed by a nonprofit and subsisting on donations and wealthy benefactors like none other than WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton — when they feel they can no longer trust what’s really happening when they message their friends on their smartphone. Now, Facebook and WhatsApp face a long road of transparent communication and trust-building ahead if they want to get those people back.