New figures shared by the U.K. parliament’s home affairs committee on “online harms” show that disgruntled WhatsApp users have migrated to rival apps with Signal gaining 7.5 million users in the first three weeks of 2021 and Telegram gaining a staggering 25 million.
According to Niamh Sweeney, the company’s director of public policy for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, the mass migration came after the Facebook-owned WhatsApp alerted its user to a change in its terms and conditions.
The company soon issued a clarification, explaining that the new policy only affects the way users’ accounts interact with businesses and does not mandate any new data collection. It also delayed the introduction of the policy by three months.
“It’s important for us to be clear this update describes business communication and does not change WhatsApp’s data sharing practices with Facebook,” stated WhatsApp head Will Cathcart in a series of tweets.
“It does not impact how people communicate privately with friends or family wherever they are in the world.”
More importantly, the company clarified that the new policy would not affect the contents of users’ chats. These remain protected by end-to-end encryption – long considered the “gold standard” of security – which means that no one can view the content of the messages, not WhatsApp, Facebook or even government authorities.
Sweeney explained to the home affairs committee that the update was intended to enable a new set of business features as well as “make clarifications and provide greater transparency” around WhatsApp’s existing policies. At the same time, she denied that it was meant to increase its data-sharing with Facebook.
“There are no changes to our data sharing with Facebook anywhere in the world,” she insisted.
Damage already done to WhatsApp and Facebook’s reputations
Despite WhatsApp’s attempts to clarify its new terms of service, the damage has already been done. Its bungled communication attempts have raised awareness that WhatsApp does collect a lot of data – data that could be shared with Facebook.
For years, WhatsApp has been sharing data with its parent company, including users’ profile name and phone numbers. While the app does not collect the content of users’ chats, it does collect the metadata attached to them such as the sender, time a message was sent and who it was shared to. This metadata can be shared with “Facebook companies.” (Related: Whatsapp: Malicious spyware has all the markings of “government sponsored surveillance.”)
The company stated that in the U.K. and the E.U. that the update does not share any further data with Facebook due to the region’s strict privacy regulation, known as the general update to data protection regulation (GDPR).
Moore also said that this could trigger a migration of people to other apps with more-privacy focused terms.
“We may even see people move away from these apps to more privacy-focused apps which more delicately protect our data,” he said.
Add to this the fact that Facebook isn’t known for keeping its promises. When it bought WhatsApp in 2014, it pledged to keep the two services separate. But just a few years later, it announced plans to integrate the messaging systems of both as well as Instagram, which it also owns. The move appears to have stalled due to technical and regulatory difficulties around encryption, but it still remains the long-term plan.
Follow TechGiants.news for more on the issues with Facebook’s handling of user data.