By Simon Moffatt.

Earlier in January, WhatsApp announced it would be making changes to its privacy policy, regarding how data would be shared with its parent company, Facebook. Whilst this change would only impact users outside of the European Union, many users have started to look to more security and privacy focused apps, such as Signal and Telegram.

Why? Well it seems the updated privacy policy indicates more information would be shared with the “Facebook Companies” – such as transaction data, phone number, service related information, how you interact with others, IP address, mobile device information and potentially your messages (as indicated by the Information We Collect section of the privacy policy, albeit WhatApps says that messages are not by default stored server side in the general course of delivering the service).

It seems these changes have spooked some of the 2 billion registered users of WhatApp (of which 1.6 billion log in monthly). In the week the change was announced (4 Jan), Signal was apparently downloaded 246,000 times – the week after, that jumped to 8.8 million globally. Quite a leap.

Telegram on the other hand, has approximately 500 million users globally, with weekly downloads jumping from 6.5 million before the WhatsApp announcement to 11 million the week after. Impressive stuff.

Why the Leap from WhatsApp?

Herd mentality and the viral effect play a huge part in the adoption of messaging systems. If your friends and colleagues are not using it, it becomes of less use. A key aspect of stickiness to many messaging and social systems, is that of brand loyalty and associative shared believes. Why do some people prefer apples to oranges? Apple to Google? One football team to another?

The differences in a WhatApp functional comparison to Signal or to Telegram is likely to be minimal for the average user. There is certainly a convenience aspect though – familiarity of usage, setup and navigation, but beyond that, the functional delivery will be quite narrow between the products – you could perhaps argue they are even homogeneous.

Why do people choose Signal?

Signal is a non-profit organisation, founded in 2013, with apps available for a range of different platforms. Their go to market message is very much focused on security – with a strapline of “Say “hello” to a different messaging experience. An unexpected focus on privacy, combined with all of the features you expect.”

The app is powered by an open source security protocol, cunningly called “signal“. As a non-profit entity, development is funded by donations and grants. Since the recent huge spike in registrations, Signal experienced technical issues on Jan 15th – it will be interesting to see if their structure, funding and technical capabilities can cope with the increased demand for services.

The Signal privacy policy outlines the typical data collection and usage clauses as with other messaging apps. Messages cannot be read by Signal, but contacts perhaps can. With regards to further data sharing, the generic “To meet any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request.” is also present.

Why do people choose Telegram?

Formed against in 2013, one of Telegram’s 9 “why us” themes, includes both privacy and security. It certainly seems privacy and secrecy are seen to be competitive advantages. Their FAQs, mention on several occasions, that their groups can contain up to 200,000 members. Not sure I have 200,000 friends for a group, but that is a reassuringly high number. Telegram claim to differentiate themselves from WhatsApp, by allowing multiple devices to access messages simultaneously. Which may indicate messages are stored cloud side, rather than being device specific.

Whilst originating in St Petersburg, Telegram is now based in Dubai, and delivers their service for free. Albeit they do state that monetisation will commence in 2021.

They claim to be more secure than WhatsApp, whilst that is hard to quantify, they do offer a $300,000 bounty for those claiming to decipher their messages. They offer a concept called “secret-chats”, which allows messages not to be stored on Telegram servers with self-destruction properties. This would indicate, that by default that isn’t the case (which is explained in their privacy policy).

It seems many parts of the Telegram code base and architecture are available to scrutiny however, for those inclined to give it the once over.

User data is shared with Telegram Group Companies – many of which are interlinked business entities located in the British Virgin Islands and Dubai as well as the standard government law enforcement disclosure if required.

Other Options?

A Google of alternatives to WhatsApp, will likely show Discord, Keybase, Threema amongst others. Most are “free” at the point of usage – which typically means the monetisation aspect is related to the user data within the ecosystem.

But the question remains, what do you need from a messaging app? Clearly other contacts to message must be present within the tools ecosystem. Without that, things would get a little lonely. If many options contain all your contacts, then secondary factors such as cost, and perhaps security and privacy would become more relevant.

It seems for the average user, perhaps the security and privacy element is only more relevant if you are aware that your data is being shared. The material impact may be minimal.

Is privacy becoming a trend or simply trendy?

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