A Signal to exit WhatsApp

Public response to WhatsApp’s new privacy norms

Business

January 16, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

A Signal to exit WhatsApp

The faceoff between WhatsApp and Signal is expected to continue for a few more months

In face of users’ outrage across the world and notably in India over change in privacy policy and to start sharing sensitive user data with its parent, Facebook, WhatsApp was forced to step back. However, for now, it has only announced a postponement in date of policy change by three months. But that may not be enough to stem the migration of users to rival app, Signal, which expects a major foothold in the Indian market as the app began trending on all social media platforms in India.

Late on Friday, WhatsApp, world’s leading messaging app, announced that it was delaying the implementation of its new privacy policy which would have led to sharing of comprehensive user profile and sensitive data with Facebook, its parent. Users now have till May 15 to accept the new policy, instead of the earlier deadline of February 8. In its communique, the messaging app admitted that the delay was in order to clear users’ doubts about their privacy and blamed rumours, that it hinted, were being circulated by business rivals.

The announcement, however, does not seem to have assuaged users’ fears over the security of their data and the migration to other platforms, notably Signal, picked up pace. So much so that Signal could not handle the load of new users and its servers crashed on Friday. In a statement issued by the messaging app on Twitter, the company said: “Signal is experiencing technical difficulties. We are working hard to restore service as quickly as possible.” It went on to say that the cause of the global outage was the migration of millions upon millions moving to Signal, the company informed.

Not just Friday, but Signal has been a hot property on the internet for a while, ever since WhatsApp had announced its new privacy policy. “Even though we’re still breaking records, verification codes are back in the groove. Delivery delays have been eliminated across multiple cellular providers, so things should be more ASAP when you join the app,” Signal had tweeted, implying that people were migrating in hordes to the app. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who recently dethroned Jeff Bezos as the world’s richest person, had also asked his followers on Twitter to join Signal, which like WhatsApp is an end-to-end encrypted app that has been around since 2014 and its tagline reads ‘say hello to privacy’.

Signal was created by Signal Foundation, set up by former WhatsApp co-founder Brien Acton who left WhatsApp in 2017. Signal is free to use and has similar features like WhatsApp. Recently, Signal took a dig at Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook over its data privacy policies by tweeting, “Facebook is probably more comfortable selling ads than buying them, but they’ll do what they have to do in order to be the top result when some people search for ‘Signal’ in the App Store. P.S. There will never be ads in Signal, because your data belongs in your hands not ours.”

Musk’s call to drop WhatsApp and move to Signal was not left unheard in India where several leading corporate bosses have joined in the chorus of technology industry leaders in Silicon Valley, pushing for users to quit WhatsApp and move to Signal.

Among those advocating such a move were PhonePe’s co-founder and chief executive Sameer Nigam. “Product wise, Signal has arrived. Moved 1000+ PhonePe-rs to Signal. Recreated all my work groups. Moved my family groups,’’ Nigam tweeted, adding that he had adopted the app prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. Nigam also said most of his work contacts including other entrepreneurs, partners, and bankers are already on Signal. “Zero switching cost. Just retain your WhatsApp account (like your old 90s Hotmail account) to reference old threads,” Nigam said.

Paytm founder and chief executive Vijay Shekhar Sharma also tweeted support to move to ditch WhatsApp. “They say, market has power. We are the largest market. Here in India WhatsApp / Facebook are abusing their monopoly and taking away millions of users’ privacy for granted. We should move on to @signalapp NOW. It is up to us to become victims or reject such moves,” he said.

A green Signal

The statements were welcomed by Signal and its management which says that the app topped the downloads from appstores in India for several successive days. “I think the Indian market has completely exceeded all expectations and the growth in the past few days has driven the company to add capacity to meet the burgeoning demand. And the growth is just amazing, it’s been so fast in the last 72 hours that not too many of us have gotten very much sleep. That’s a good problem,” Signal co-founder Brian Acton told media in India recently.

The calls for moving have created a strong momentum for migration from WhatsApp, amongst Indians and not just those who are currently in India. The call to dump WhatsApp seems to have made an impact on the diaspora too.

Kavitha Pandian, an NRI based in Richmond, Virginia, US, who is also the founder of Our Village Our Responsibility, an NGO in Tamil Nadu, says she recently switched to Signal app due to security reasons. “With WhatsApp coming up with new privacy rules where our contacts and data can be used for commercial purposes and sold to third parties for targeted advertising. Also there’s a high chance of tracking the IP location of an individual. So it poses a huge risk to the privacy of an individual,” Pandian, who has recently migrated to Signal, tells Media India Group.

When asked why she chose Signal, Pandian adds, “Signal is ranked second as best team chat software. The most important reason people choose Signal is that it uses an advanced and one encryption protocol that provides privacy for every message every time. Hence, in terms of privacy, Signal is rated the best. The app also declares clearly that the data is not linked to be a user except for the phone number,” says Pandian.

Caught by surprise over the strong backlash to its news privacy policy, WhatsApp, which has over 400 million users in India making it the biggest single market in the world, has been running massive publicity campaign trying to assuage consumer fears over privacy breaches and data security.

But it seems to have failed to stem the tide of people leaving the messaging app. One of the biggest reasons behind lack of public trust in WhatsApp is the past behaviour of its parent firm Facebook, which has repeatedly failed to keep its word over privacy and preventing misuse of the social networking site. The users have been worried about Facebook’s data collection and handling practices ever since Cambridge Analytica affair six years ago and also its regular practice of sharing data with phone manufacturers.

In February 2014, when Facebook bought WhatsApp for USD 22 billion, it committed to the European Union competition authorities that it would not share data between two firms as ‘it would be really difficult to merge or blend data between WhatsApp and Facebook’. Though the EU gave the go ahead, they kept a watch on Facebook and fined the company in 2017 over its repeat violations of the commitment.

Pandian draws comparisons between what happened in Europe and what may unfold in India, shortly as last year Facebook acquired a 9.99 pc stake in Jio Platforms of Reliance Industries for INR 435.74 billion. “In India, another important aspect is that WhatsApp has clearly stated that it will be sharing information with Facebook. The behaviour of social media firms in India is even more dangerous than in other nations. If you observe closely both Facebook and Twitter, they shut down even President Donald Trump in the US over the Capitol Building fiasco, but in India, they have been kowtowing the government. Like Trump, (Narendra) Modi’s government has legitimised hate but none of these platforms did anything. Even during elections, both the social media platforms called out the incorrect claims of Trump but failed to do so during Indian elections,” she says.

In August, 2020 Facebook executive Ankhi Das, head of public policy in India, sent messages which the staff saw as conflicting with the company’s pledge to remain neutral in elections around the world,” says Pandian.

Slow, steady but sure shift

An analyst, however, says that the drift away from WhatsApp may not be too significant, at least not immediately. “There are two different kinds of users. One is very much concerned over their privacy, but for the other type of user, it is no big deal as they believe once they have opted for IOT devices, it does not make any difference. Even with a simple email account your data has been collected and your profile there on various social media platforms. For me, I have so many groups on WhatsApp that it will be difficult for me to migrate from one app to another. It is not that much of a serious threat for WhatsApp,” says the analyst based in North Carolina, in United States.

The analyst says that even though Signal has been aggressively expanding, the threat to WhatsApp is still pretty small as the migration may happen over time, instead of in one go. “People may not migrate totally away from WhatsApp immediately due to the high penetration of the app and presence of many more contacts on this app than any other. So probably what could happen I migrate in bits and pieces, over time, and I stop using WhatsApp for my sensitive communication. This is how migration happens. It is not that you vacate your entire home in one go, you will move little by little. I still need data saved on WhatsApp,” says the analyst.

Signal’s Acton agrees with this prediction. “I think in the short term, people will have WhatsApp and Signal, side by side. They will learn about the differences and they will see how we compete with each other. In the long term, it’s a debate whether there will be an emergent winner, and you know that’s going to require a lot of hard work and effort on our part,” says Acton.

Pandian says that she has made up her mind to leave WhatsApp and is not worried about losing contacts or data due to this migration. “I do see many switching away from WhatsApp, I have been part of 4 to 5 large groups in WhatsApp wherein we have over 150 people in each group and the migration is already happening. We have already started our groups in signal and we are going good over there,” she says.

“Also if you ask me on what I am losing out by moving out of WhatsApp group I don’t think I’m going to lose out on anything because for me it’s about my contact, photos and videos shared by friends. Coming to the contacts that I have with people I see many of them are moving out of WhatsApp and we are all connected through other apps and through other social media platforms as well and beyond that we have messages or email and we can always pick up the phone and talk to each other.  So I’m not losing on anything it is just that I am choosing from the best option for me right now which is available for my consumption at the terms convenient for me,” says Pandian, driving home the extent to which the new privacy policy is bound to hurt WhatsApp.

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