Quitting WhatsApp will be difficult – but it’s the right thing to do

“Use Signal,” SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted Jan. 7. “It’s @signalapp, for those who don’t speak Elon,” infamous whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted shortly after.

When asked why the former NSA employee recommended it, Snowden had an extremely simple response: “I use it every day and am not dead yet.

Signal, for those who do not speak Elon or Edward, is an end-to-end encrypted messaging application. This means that it uses a protocol that ensures that no one – including Signal – can access the content of messages. Since recommendations have grown in popularity, it currently ranks number one on Apple’s App Store and Google Play Store.

These celebrity endorsements were triggered by Signal rival WhatsApp. The Facebook-owned client has around 2 billion monthly active users worldwide, while Signal has around 14 million. It’s hard to call these apps as competitors because a messaging app is only as powerful as its network. But while WhatsApp’s network is under threat, Signal’s continues to grow.

Last week, WhatsApp sent a message to all of its users informing them of its new privacy policy, which share messaging app data on Facebook. This data includes information about battery level, IP address, browser information, mobile network, phone number, and Internet service provider.

This does not include the content of user chats as these are, like Signal, end-to-end encrypted. In fact, WhatsApp uses the same protocol that Signal itself uses.

Additionally, this does not include users in the “European region”, which covers the EU, EEA and UK (even after Brexit), despite a new privacy policy to be accepted. “There is no change in WhatsApp data sharing practices in Europe following this update,” tweeted WhatsApp Policy Director Niamh Sweeney.

The fact that such a clarification needed to be made, that users did not understand how their data was protected, is the highlight of Facebook’s poor reputation for privacy.

It’s strange for a journalist to write this, but what matters is not how things go; this is how things are Feel. WhatsApp may not share data with Facebook, but it feels like it does, the same way your phone is (Probably) do not in fact listen to your conversations, but the mass of information about your location, preferences, chat history, all collected by advertisers, means that the TV show you were talking about just yesterday is now the first ad you see on the site.

These “coincidences” are in fact only surveillance capitalism, a manifestation of all our bought and sold interests so that we become better consumers. It makes people feel uncomfortable, even though they can’t necessarily explain why.

Additionally, Facebook is currently in an image war against Apple over privacy. Apple’s new iPhone operating system will soon ask users if they consent to be followed by Facebook, which many users will likely object to due to the legacy of the infamous Cambridge Analytica scandal.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s recent attacks on democracy, many users are unlikely to want to cede more power to the organization that, at least partially, helped get him elected.

While Facebook does not currently take data from WhatsApp, that future is also to come. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has long talked about the merger of the back-end of all of the company’s messaging platforms, as well as Instagram. Even though users don’t currently share their data across platforms, the knowledge that such an event is coming is palpable.

And finally, no one likes to be forced to use something. Facebook’s various apps take up many valuable spots on the phone’s home screen, and amid antitrust lawsuits claiming the the company crushes or buys the competition, the idea that it can be combated seems to slowly creep into the everyday user.

Does using Signal solve all the problems? No. Many people will still use Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp – at least, until iMessage comes to Android – but the power of Facebook lies in its user base.

It’s hard to switch from WhatsApp because everyone is on WhatsApp, just as it’s hard to move when you’ve grown up in the neighborhood, or make friends if you’ve changed schools. But although difficult and inconvenient, it is possible.

Despite the apparent divine right of these tech platforms, they don’t last forever – just look at the void left by MySpace, or AOL or BBM. Switching to a different messaging app might not seem like much, but it is recognition of attempting a different world based on different principles. At least that’s a start.

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