What’s Up With WhatsApp? Shifting Attitudes Towards Privacy in 2021

It seemed like only a matter of time before WhatsApp, the world’s most popular messaging app, would get into a data privacy scandal — mostly due to its direct affiliation with Facebook, a Big Tech player with a less-than-stellar data protection record.

Thus, it came as no surprise when WhatsApp’s recent privacy update that explicitly required users to share their data with Facebook faced public backslash. All it took to prompt an outcry was one poorly worded statement that didn’t actually announce anything new. Enraged by the suggestion that their messages will become accessible to Facebook staff (which was not necessarily what the update entailed), users turned to more privacy-friendly competitors, namely Signal and Telegram.

There’s plenty to unpack and think about here, as the news ironically arrived just in time for the World Privacy Day, January 28. The main lesson, however, seems crystal clear: people now care about their online privacy.

The Great Migration

Soon after WhatsApp’s controversial privacy announcement aired, downloads for its two main competitors — Telegram and Signal — surged dramatically. Signal reportedly experienced a whopping 17.8 million downloads in the first week after the WhatsApp fiasco, a 61-fold increase from its performance the week before. Telegram, in turn, witnessed as many as 15.7 million new downloads over the same period. Its founder Pavel Durov went on to dub the WhatsApp exodus “the largest digital migration in human history”.

However, it wasn’t the first time WhatsApp pulled a stunt like this. Back in 2016, the messaging giant changed its terms of service for the first time since it was acquired by Facebook for $19 billion. Curiously enough, the update entailed controversial data sharing practices for the “Facebook family of companies”. The information that would be shared under the new T&Cs included users’ phone numbers and the last time they used the app. Although the media blew the whistle on the new update at the time, the backlash didn’t seem to run deeper than a number of angry articles and statements from privacy advocates. Some people claimed that they were done with WhatsApp, but the messaging juggernaut’s massive user base only continued to grow. So why did the backlash seem more palpable now? Yes, WhatsApp remains an undisputed king among messaging services (more than 2 billion reported users! That’s more than Telegram, Signal and WeChat put together), and people are still actively using Facebook, but the influx of new users to their competitors was so massive they could barely handle it — at some point, Signal even stopped working properly. That seems much more significant compared to 2016.

The question then, is this — what has changed since that time, exactly?

Opening the Floodgate

In some ways, the digital migration has long been foreshadowed, as the public discontent with institutions and the Big Tech corporations has been brewing for years: the Equifax case revealed how even large institutions with supposedly top-tier security are vulnerable to data breaches, while Cambridge Analytica scandal exposed how ruthlessly user data might be exploited for power.

Whatever WhatsApp’s intentions were with the latest privacy update, its perceived attempt at strong-arming users into allowing third party access to their data proved to be the final straw for many. Combined with the rise in the number of privacy-respecting and user-centric options available on the market, the ensuing migration seems to make total sense.

In light of this, 2021 could very well become the year when even casual users start taking privacy seriously.

Word On The Street

A quick glance through the respective review sections of WhatsApp and its competitors on major app stores easily demonstrates a major shift in public sentiment.

For instance, Signal has recently been showered with comments from users lauding it for being “great for privacy”, and calling it an app that makes them “feel more secure”. Telegram has equally been commended as a viable alternative to WhatsApp, though a number of users feel that its functionality can still be improved.

Meanwhile, WhatsApp has been facing less than welcoming reviews. In the comments, users often argue that the messaging app’s competitors have “better features and less privacy concerns”, and that they were “just waiting for friends and family to migrate to Telegram” so they “can uninstall the app”. The common thread that runs through all those messages is clear — people are deciding to step up and reclaim ownership of their personal data.

Experts also recognize this new public spirit. “People around the world have grown weary of Facebook, interpreting a relatively banal terms change as apocalyptic,” writes Liz O’Sullivan, a Co-Founder of Arthur, an AI monitoring company.

Similarly, Sophie Chase-Borthwick, a Director of Data Ethics and Privacy at Calligo, predicts that in 2021, the importance of data ethics will become clearer. “Customers are looking for transparency about how data will be used today, but also how it might be used tomorrow, however hard that might be to advise on.”

What’s Next?

In what seems to be a response to the PR disaster, WhatsApp has decided to delay the launch of its new terms to May 2021, pushing it 3 months from its originally planned date. Additionally, the company rolled out a statement, stressing that it does not keep logs of users’ messages or share them with Facebook.

The delay will buy WhatsApp and other apps in the space time to rethink how they should continue to function in a world that seems to be much less forgiving of data privacy mishaps.

But where does that leave us? Perhaps we can also take this time to think about how we want to protect and manage our data in 2021. In the wake of the pandemic, a major part of our lifestyles have shifted online — which makes it even more important to know how exactly we want to engage with each other and corporations on the Internet.

In the meantime, while it might feel impossible to keep up with the every policy change and update, there are certain steps we can take to keep ourselves safer. From listening to privacy experts to simply doing due diligence before downloading an app (some app stores, like Apple’s, are adding mandatory privacy labels to make this process easier) — all these small efforts add up. So although it remains unclear how tech companies will adapt to this new reality, the increased public awareness and a greater legislative willingness to enforce individual privacy are definitely things to be optimistic about. If there’s one good thing that came out of this entire fiasco, it is this — we’re finally starting to have better and deeper conversations about online privacy.

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