WhatsApp’s privacy policy change breaks Signal

Update 20Jan2021: The SumOfUs petition I mentioned below currently has 93,661 signatures*. Whether it’s down to that or the general backlash, WhatsApp announced it will delay the rollout of the policy revision from 08Feb to 15May2021. (Big deal: all delaying does is prolong the agony for them; they need to do a complete U-turn!)
Another couple of things I’ve learned since I wrote this wibblette are:
a) if you signed up to WhatsApp after 2016 — as I did — you’re already on the revised privacy terms and
b) if the tighter privacy legislation of the GDPR applies to you, your data should not be shared with third parties — unless, of course, WhatsApp slips up and we hear from them down the line, “Whoops, sorry guv, we made a mistake”….
* Having finished this update, on re-checking, the signature total has risen to 94,641!

Update 17Jan2021: Signal’s issues appear to be fixed. At least for the time being…


With about two billion users, WhatsApp is the most popular communications app on the planet. It is owned by Facebook, which has a rich history of abuse of and lack of respect for its users’ privacy.

The other day, a friend sent me a link via WhatsApp to a Bloomberg.com article: Why WhatsApp’s New Privacy Rules Sparked an Exodus (this is actually a link to the same article on Washington Post, which has a less aggressive paywall than Bloomberg’s).

This article reveals that Facebook is changing its privacy policy with effect from 08Feb2021 15May2021 to enable it to share data between the various companies in its vast global empire. This move only benefits that empire; its effects are detrimental to the users of the service. WhatsApp users are not even being given the opportunity to consent to this change before the data harvest begins (SumOfUs has created a petition — 70,745 signatures so far — to demand exactly that).

The Bloomberg article is ambiguous about what data is being referred to. It specifies ‘metadata’ (which includes contacts, location, financial information, usage data, and unique phone identifiers), but ‘helpfully’ asks the specific question ‘Can Facebook read my WhatsApp now?’ — and then immediately answers that with what appears to be a definitive ‘No’, pointing out that ‘conversations are encrypted end-to-end’. But that question talks about now, ie before the February deadline, leaving hanging, in my mind at least, the question of what happens to the privacy of those conversations after that deadline. And it also side-steps the issue of messages that are backed up in the cloud. Can we trust Facebook to be honourable about the privacy of that data? (I think: not.)

Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk endorsed Signal, another messaging app, to his 42 million Twitter followers a few days ago. Unsurprisingly, Signal’s registration service crashed soon afterwards due to the flood of incoming new user requests.

I’ve heard of Signal before. The encryption system WhatsApp uses is actually Signal’s own protocol; it’s a classic example of a greedy corporation leeching off society.

Wired has an interesting article: Why everyone should be using Signal instead of WhatsApp. Largely on the strength of this, I thought I’d give Signal a try. Signal is free; it has no adverts, there are no affiliate marketers and there’s no creepy tracking. The software is developed and maintained by an independent nonprofit organisation, one that’s not tied to any major tech companies (and which can never be acquired by one either). Development is supported by grants and donations.

I agree with the evaluation of Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey:

“I trust Signal because it’s well built, but more importantly, because of how it’s built: open source, peer reviewed, and funded entirely by grants and donations. A refreshing model for how critical services should be built.”

Yesterday evening, having persuaded one of my brothers to install Signal, I began chatting with him using it. And then, suddenly, the Signal app presented me with the following:

Signal is experiencing technical difficulties
O.0… Something broke!

… and that disturbing message is still there as I write. The latest update from @Signalapp on Twitter — coming up on a day later — indicates a serious problem. One that, one hopes, can be resolved in fairly short order — if they’re given the resources, and a little time.

Although I have to admit that my first impressions are that Signal is somewhat less polished than WhatsApp, and even though it has been effectively broken by the current situation, I’m still planning on switching to Signal. The big problem is that WhatsApp has an enormous user base; and among that vast throng are my family and friends. So I need to try to find a way to seduce them from the dark side… unless I want to end up talking to myself.

About peNdantry

Phlyarologist (part-time) and pendant. Campaigner for action against anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and injustice in all its forms. Humanist, atheist, notoftenpist. Wannabe poet, writer and astronaut.
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17 Responses to WhatsApp’s privacy policy change breaks Signal

  1. Scribblans says:

    I’ve been a Signal user for about three years, I haven’t got many friends I want to chat to but it’s great for one’s I do have and the family to use, but this recent influx of new users was massive. They posted a screenshot of their Google Play app downloads… they went from 10m to 50m downloads on the day Musk tweeted about it.
    Sadly I see a lot of tweets to their account now show feature requests for some of the frivolous stuff that messenger apps like WhatsApp offered that Signal doesn’t have..stickers, more emojis, status indication, last seen…that sort of rubbish I hope they’re not listened to too much, it’s fine being Signal, not needing to be WhatsApp. Sadly it’s now like when your favourite cool and obscure band gets popular because of a TV advert all of a sudden, just got to hope that they don’t sell out to popular pressure (I know they can’t actually sell it) in that way!

    Liked by 1 person

    • pendantry says:

      I agree: the frivolous bells and whistles are totally unnecessary. I too hope they won’t bow to the pressure. I only heard about Signal recently… I’ve looked into it a little bit and understand that the originators of WhatsApp (which is built on Signal), having sold out to faecesbook for $19 billion (!) proceeded to fight back against the pressure to merge the systems. And then left the company when it eventually became clear they couldn’t. I think it’s the same guys (or at least one of them is?) that’s in charge at Signal now. Whoever it is, it seems to me that the Signal Foundation has the right focus.

      Sorry that my appearance on the Signal scene (along with those other millions) has interfered with your enjoyment of the product! Fingers crossed, they’ll be able to adapt to the influx soon. I’ve done my bit: I set up a fundraiser on faecesbook (hehe) to support Signal — https://bit.ly/HelpSwitch :)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. daryan12 says:

    I wonder if the technical difficulties has got something to do with the fact that the alt-right lot are being de-platformed by almost everybody and are scrambling around looking for another service to spread their hate speech and Qnon BS.
    My prediction, Trump will set up his own platform (which will include fees), it will turn out to be far worse for privacy than any of the other platforms, fleece its customers and finally collapse due to incompetent management.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pendantry says:

      My crystal ball differs from yours in only one respect: it’s suggesting that it would be a bit difficult for any self-claimed ‘billionaire’, assuming their assets do actually outweigh their debts, to set up any such platform from behind bars.

      Like

      • daryan12 says:

        I’d like to believe that, but Biden has already ruled out going after Trump. I reckon he’ll get done for something eventually, likely non federal charges, tax evasion, perjury, embezzlement etc. He’s also going to run out of money, he’s huge debts he won’t be able to pay off, hence why he’s going to need to go on wingnut welfare and basically start fleecing his supporters.

        Liked by 1 person

        • pendantry says:

          As I understand it, even if Biden won’t go after T**** (which I can understand; appearing to be vindictive is not an appealing trait, and he’ll be busy enough attempting to undo all the 💩 the orange 💩 has left behind), the decision, at a federal level, is up to the Attorney General. And of course there are state level indictments already in the works. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a good result.

          Like

  3. It is annoying that these companies collect so much data. And as you say WhatsApp have a massive user base.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pendantry says:

      Agreed. There are two threads to this: one is that this data is ‘legally’ used “with the users’ permission” because when you sign a click-through agreement (that nobody ever actually reads) it invariably includes a clause that allows them to change it whenever they like with no comeback and b) it’s bad enough that the data is used to track you and smother you in targeted adverts to get you to buy even more crap you don’t really need, but it can also be available to ‘the authorities’ — which opens holes to abuse. Oh, and c) if the data at rest is stored unencrypted, this leaves private information open to snooping (and those who snoop invariably do so for nefarious reasons).

      /rant

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I hear ya. I prefer calling/txting people to any other app. The only problem is that I have family and friends on different continents. Those phone calls and txts cost more. Enter other messaging/calling apps. Do I cut even more ties? It seems most people don’t care too much about their privacy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pendantry says:

      I’m not clear from what you say whether you use a messenger app yourself (if you do, which one?). You can call (and even videocall) using them, at minimal cost over a broadband connection via WiFi, completely sidestepping the outrageous per-minute communication charges that used to dominate the scene (and that still do in some places).

      My current plan is to keep WhatsApp so I can still maintain contact with those who won’t move from it, but to use Signal (and Telegram too, though that has some flaws, such as group chats not being encrypted) too. It makes life a little more complicated, but there are many people from whom I wouldn’t want to cut ties.

      By the way, I’m kicking myself now. I remember talking to my brother over a pint one day years ago, back before ‘smartphones’ came onto the scene. I had this crazy idea about connecting phones via the Internet, you see. Sadly, I’ve never been privy to the kind of knowledge/ contacts/ munny needed to turn ideas into reality.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I do use What’s app but very minimally and only because “I don’t have a choice.” Personally, I like Telegram, but it doesn’t seem to be as popular.

        Ah, yes, the unfortunate trait of being an “average” citizen…

        Liked by 1 person

        • pendantry says:

          I now have Signal and Telegram as well as WhatsApp. As soon as I joined Telegram, I got a message from ‘Telegram Service Notifications’ that they’d had 25 million new users sign up, within just 72 hours, and that they now had more than 500 million active users. However, I’m going to be focussing on Signal, because it’s more secure.

          Liked by 1 person

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