The Origin of WhatsApp
WhatsApp is a messaging app for smartphones created in 2009 by two former Yahoo employees, Brian Acton and Jan Koum. The app was developed by Igor Solomennikov, leveraged then Apple’s new push notifications to update users’ networks with status updates. The users were quick to use this as an instant messaging service which became the idea of what WhatsApp would become eventually.
What appealed to the people at the time was that the app was free to download and was an alternative to the cell provider’s traditional text messaging platform. The USP of such messaging service at the time was its privacy feature.
Acquisition By Facebook
Fast forward to 2014, Facebook acquired WhatsApp for a $22 billion which was the largest acquisition by the social media giant to date. WhatsApp currently is the largest messaging service in the world with over 2 billion monthly active users (as of Feb 2020) where everyday people send around 100 billion messages every day (as of Oct 2020).
The messaging app promotes its end-to-end encryption technology, which ensures that all contents in chats are secured by default. Not even WhatsApp can read messages or listen to calls that take place among the participants of conversations. This is one of the reasons why it was able to acquire so many users within a short span of time. As per reports, it acquired around 500 million users in 2 years.
Disagreements Between Acton & Zuckerberg
Brian Acton, the founder of WhatsApp left Facebook in 2017 over differences between Facebook CEO and co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg on the monetisation of the app.
Surely, when Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $22 billion, they wanted to devise a model to boost their revenue as people were using WhatsApp more than Facebook. Moreover, Facebook was looking for user growth and WhatsApp was gaining 1 million users a day. Zuckerberg wanted to monetize WhatsApp using targeting ads and commercial messaging. This irked Acton and he left Facebook as he promised his users that there would be no ads on WhatsApp, which cost him $850 million for his early exit. Acton at the time said that he wanted to focus on a non-profit.
The Cambridge Analytica Scandal
This is the biggest scandal that could ever happen for a tech company that keeps users’ personal data. It involved the obtaining of the personal data of millions of Facebook users without their consent by British consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, predominantly to be used for political advertising.
The data were collected through an app called “This Is Your Digital Life”, developed by data scientist, Aleksandr Kogan. The app collected data of up to 87 million Facebook profiles. Cambridge Analytica sought to sell the data of American voters to political campaigns and ultimately provided assistance and analytics to the 2016 presidential campaigns of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.
When the scandal unfolded, Facebook received backlash from many users, tech companies, media and government. The scandal was so huge, that it sparked an online debate about how social media websites like Facebook and Twitter handle user data. In fact, Zuckerberg had to testify in front of Congress.
Several public figures criticised Facebook including WhatsApp founder Brian Acton who tweeted.
Facebook had to pay a £500,000 fine to the Information Commissioner’s Office for exposing the data of its users to a “serious risk of harm”. It also inspired a Netflix documentary, ‘The Great Hack’, which covered the scandal in detail.
WhatsApp Spokesperson quoted,
This move by Facebook begs the question of whether a company can force its users to accept the terms and conditions for using the app. Technically, yes they can. However, this was seen as a direct violation of user privacy by many.
People have been using WhatsApp for everything from personal to business usage wherein they share personal information like phone numbers, passwords, bank details, etc. Hence, this privacy update has led to numerous rumours like “WhatsApp and Facebook would read your chats”.
However, it seems like the users are now migrating from the app to other alternatives that focus on privacy rather than business from data.
The Rise of Signal
When Acton left Facebook to work for a nonprofit. He co-founded Signal Foundation with Moxie Marlinspike, which is a nonprofit organisation in February 2018, developed the Signal messaging app. It uses standard cellular telephone numbers as identifiers and secures all communications to other Signal users with end-to-end encryption. It has received top scores on the EFF’s Secure Messaging Scorecard making it the most secure messaging platform.
The app includes mechanisms by which users can independently verify the identity of their contacts and the integrity of the data channel. Signal is completely dependent on donations and grants. Action himself contributed $50 million.
Signal has been used by politicians and whistleblowers since its launch. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has endorsed Signal on multiple occasions. But the internet went crazy when the World’s Richest Person, Elon Musk dropped a simple tweet.
Since then, Signal’s download rate is increasing by millions every day. In fact, on January 12, it was installed by 40 million people on Android devices. That’s quite a feat! Musk also tweeted that he donated to Signal Foundation last year and will contribute more in future.
Signal offers its users secure messaging, voice, and video calls and all communications are end-to-end encrypted. Furthermore, you can form groups, though you don’t have the option to broadcast messages to multiple contacts at once. Additionally, Signal has recently added support for the group calling for 8 people as well. It allows you to relay voice calls to its servers so your identity remains concealed from your contacts. The feature is somewhat similar to what a VPN does. It also offers a built-in option to hide your IP address. It also has unique features like self-destructing messages and “Note To Self” where you can write down your groceries list, movie lists or even random thoughts.
The Future of Messaging Apps
WhatsApp has been a part of our lives now and is difficult for people to get rid of. But again, people should not take privacy lightly. In my opinion, you should be able to decide whether you want to share your data or not.
WhatsApp has already lost many users since the privacy update so much so that the company had to delay the rollout to May 15 instead of February 8 2021.
WhatsApp does not encrypt the metadata which is used to carry communication between two users. Facebook can extract this metadata to know with whom you have talked and for how long. This is a major drawback. WhatsApp (& Facebook) has to come back with a plan to retain its users soon as now that the users have become aware.
I am sure Signal will try to milk the privacy situation for all its worth. Signal only retains phone number and it makes no attempt to link to users identity. Signal also encrypts your metadata. To protect user privacy, Signal devised a new way to communicate between the users called Sealed Sender. Basically, with Sealed Sender, no one will be able to know, not even Signal, who is messaging whom. This is where Signal outshines WhatsApp. This is the feature I would blindly rely upon. This is the feature why Edward Snowden endorses this app.
There are obviously other apps as well but none can be compared to Signal if privacy is concerned. If privacy is your utmost priority, you should definitely switch to Signal.