WhatsApp, a misconceived menace to society?
MAIN IMAGE: Ahmore Burger-Smidt, director Werksmans Attorneys; Dale Adams, candidate legal practitioner Werksmans Attorneys.
by Ahmore Burger-Smidt and Dale Adams
Users voiced displeasure about the app’s changed policies are rife and social media relating to personal data/information being misused is increasing. Telegram users are also increasing by the minute!
However, is this switch justified? What is the exact situation with regard to the changes to WhatsApp and how concerned should people be?
WhatsApp security and privacy
“Your messages. We do not retain your messages in the ordinary course of providing our Services to you. Instead, your messages are stored on your device and not typically stored on our servers. Once your messages are delivered, they are deleted from our servers.“
What WhatsApp has access to is metadata, IP addresses, profile pictures, status updates and user contact information. Whilst metadata does not allow anyone to read a user’s messages, it allows for transparency as to who and when a user messaged someone and for how long.
Telegram security and privacy
Telegram, an entity originally established in Russia with the aim of providing secure messaging, is the second largest messaging service in the world with over 400 million users. In the wake of Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp in 2014, Telegram exponentially grew in popularity purportedly due to its security and privacy features.
Even though Telegram offers encryption on messages and other information, it is not enabled by default – like that of WhatsApp. The only way to use E2E encryption on Telegram is to use its “secret chats” feature. In addition, the “secret chats” feature is only available for “chats” between two users. In theory, therefore, Telegram has access to your messages which are not covered by the veil of “secret chats” and they store this for 12 months.
Based on the above high-level comparison of the security features utilised by WhatsApp and Telegram, it could be argued that WhatsApp’s security and privacy is more robust and secure than that of Telegram especially in that E2E encryption is a default feature.
- basic account data such as user mobile number, profile name, profile picture and about information;
- user email addresses; and
- user messages in cloud chats such as messages, photos, videos and documents.
The above information goes further than the sets of personal information that WhatsApp has access to, and processes on behalf of its users, and WhatsApp by default provides E2E encryption.
Signal security and privacy
Several experts and users are encouraging people to move to Signal. Signal Messenger LLP, a US based and established social messaging platform, is considered the best alternative to both WhatsApp and Telegram from a security and privacy perspective.
Like WhatsApp, Signal makes use of the open-source Signal Protocol to implement E2E encryption for communication on Signal. However, whilst WhatsApp encrypts messages and calls (which is sufficient for most users), Signal goes a step further and encrypts metadata as well. Furthermore, Signal also makes use of what is called “Sealed Sender”, which allows no one to be able to know – not even Signal – who is messaging whom. This is but a small part of the Signal functionality. Other security features include, amongst others, passcode or biometrics lock and automatic face blur in messages.
Considering personal information Signal only stores a user’s phone number and nothing else.
- WhatsApp’s service and how it processes your data;
- how businesses can use Facebook hosted services to store and manage their WhatsApp chats; and
- how WhatsApp partners with Facebook to offer integrations across Facebook’s product portfolio.
It is important to note that the information collected by WhatsApp is not the “chats” of its users, as these are encrypted and therefore cannot be seen by the company. To the contrary, the information relates to personal data such as phone numbers of users (and their contacts, if the contacts make use of WhatsApp), profile names, pictures and diagnostic data.
WhatsApp has added new features to allow people to communicate with businesses – and those businesses could be hosted by Facebook. However, users should be informed if that happens by the specific business. When speaking to a business who has decided to have its messages managed by Facebook, a message should appear – and users should stop engaging with the specific business if they would prefer that information not be managed by Facebook. Businesses making use of the WhatsApp platform will be able to make use of Facebook services to store the business – customer chats.
Going forward, there will be an even greater integration between WhatsApp and Facebook’s other products like Instagram and Messenger, but this means that they will share data like your phone number, transaction data, IP address and information on how you interact with businesses.
- helping improve infrastructure and delivery systems;
- understanding how the WhatsApp or Facebook services are used;
- promoting safety, security and integrity across all Facebook company products;
- improving services and user experience such as personalising features and contents, helping users to complete purchases and transactions and showing relevant offers and advertisements across the Facebook company products; and
- providing integrations which enable users to connect WhatsApp with other Facebook company products. For example, allowing users to connect Facebook Pay account to pay for things on WhatsApp.
So yes, advertising directed at a user specifically is possible and certain information will be shared to achieve that, but does Telegram differ in any significant way? That is doubtful.
As businesses across the world prepare to re-open and expand online, people need simple ways to get in touch with businesses to ask questions, get information or find something they might buy. Today, WhatsApp supports more than 50 million WhatsApp business app users. In order to help them and the thousands of larger businesses on the WhatsApp business API get discovered, the company is introducing these new features to start a chat with a business on WhatsApp to see what goods and services they offer.
Data privacy laws across the world require clear and transparent communications with data subjects. Are we blaming WhatsApp for updating their communication so that users know what is happening in the background? Did you not want to know that?
Therefore, leaving aside Signal, is there really such a difference between WhatsApp and Telegram, so much so to necessitate a move from WhatsApp to Telegram? Or do other messaging platforms have a place?
“I think that most people would rather face the light of a real enemy than the darkness of their imagined fears.” ― Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Way
About the authors: Ahmor Burger-Smidt is the director and Head of Data Privacy Practice at Werksmans Attorneys and member of Competition Law Practice. Dale Adams is a candidate legal practitioner and associate designate at Werksmans Attorneys.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on the website of Werksmans Attorneys. It is shared with permission from the author.