For many people, the popular chat application WhatsApp is an essential means of communication.
Abeer, for example, a Cairo resident on a short work trip in Dubai, kept up residential with what was happening in her compound in Cairo because she could get notifications on a WhatsApp group that her neighbours had created.
Alongside individual chats, thousands of similar groups exist in Egypt — some set up to prepare for a friend’s birthday, others bringing together families, and still others for groups of friends. These were up in arms last week on the news that WhatsApp was going to invade their privacy as a result of policy changes, many of them discussing which other apps they might migrate to as a result.
However, the application’s Egyptian users breathed a sigh of relief when the company extended the date to implement the new privacy policies to 15 May, giving users time to familiarise themselves with the changes and insisting that they are only relevant to business accounts.
WhatsApp released an announcement explaining that the data the application gathers does not include personal information such as message logs or active location and saying that the only data gathered are phone models and operating systems.
“We are committed to your privacy,” WhatsApp said in a story uploaded to the app, where it was made clear that WhatsApp did not read or listen to personal conversations on the app or share user contacts with Facebook.
The company added that business accounts do not have the same end-to-end encryption as individual accounts, since more than one person may see the messages sent and business owners regularly use third-party applications such as Facebook to gather and read messages.
WhatsApp was already facing accusations of data theft and problems with hacking, but the latest Facebook update policy announced at the beginning of January was the last straw for many users, as it would have enabled WhatsApp to send private data to Facebook to be used in order to better appeal to Facebook advertisers.
Facebook uses WhatsApp messaging in order to create targeted ads for users, and some people enjoy the service, as it can make their shopping experience easier. However, others prefer not to receive optimised ads from Facebook, considering them to be a breach of privacy.
“WhatsApp has always been the premiere messaging app because while other social-media applications do have a messaging feature, WhatsApp provides the ability to send private and encrypted messages between individuals,” commented Walid Al-Torki, a digital communications manager in Cairo.
Facebook acquired WhatsApp in February 2014 for $18 billion and then integrated Facebook code with WhatsApp.
Notable figures such as US billionaire Elon Musk and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey have advised people to use the Signal messaging app as an alternative to WhatsApp, causing registrations to surge.
Musk has been publicly against Facebook for years, even removing his company Tesla’s page from the site. It thus came as no surprise when he started to promote Signal to his followers as an alternative.
Signal, a non-profit app, has code that is available publicly, and users can add to or modify it and verify the privacy that it offers.
The app works by adding phone numbers and creating a pin code for an account, with this being sent to a mobile number. There is an end-to-end encryption system that allows only the sender and recipient to see messages.
“There will never be ads in Signal, because your data belongs in your hands, not ours,” the Signal account on Twitter said.
Kadri Sayed, an IT manager in Cairo, said that WhatsApp did not have as strong encryption as Signal, and that the latter was practically unbreakable by hackers. Signal does not only provide more privacy than WhatsApp, but the encryption it uses also makes it virtually impossible for hackers and even the organisation itself to spy on users’ messages.
Previously, hackers have proved that they are able to bypass WhatsApp encryption and change contents, considered a security risk as this enables them to control what users see.
WhatsApp and the application Telegram have been facing privacy issues, such as when a different application posing as Telegram stole data from 100,000 users who had downloaded it.
Signal has been downloaded over 10 million times and has received great reviews. Musk and US technology entrepreneur Jack Dorsey have said they are using the application. US whistle-blower Edward Snowden has also been using the app and encouraged others to use it in 2015.
Privacy is not the only thing that Signal excels at, according to Sayed, who said it did not suffer from packet loss and could be used for video and voice calls even on low Internet speeds with a high transmission rate.
However, there have been problems with the user interface used by Signal, with some complaining of slow refresh times and contact lists not getting updated. There have been complaints of delays in confirmation codes, a problem that has been addressed on the application’s Twitter page.
WhatsApp remains the top messaging app worldwide due to its friendly user interface and ease of use. However, Al-Torki noted that with current privacy issues, some users may be looking for more private alternatives.
The writer is a researcher at the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.