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Just over two weeks ago, WhatsApp released its new privacy policy, a set of terms and conditions users need to accept in order to continue using the popular messaging platform. If you don’t accept these terms and conditions, come 8 February 2021, you will no longer be able to use the service.

Along with the release of the new privacy policy came conspiracy theories and a mass migration away from the platform, to other messaging platforms such as Telegram and Signal.

Breaking down the WhatsApp privacy policy

Almost immediately after the new privacy policy was released, social media and, ironically, WhatsApp groups were inundated with conspiracy theories – with #WhatsAppPrivacyPolicy continuing to trend on Twitter at times.

A video released by Emma Sadleir, an expert on social media law in South Africa and founder of The Digital Law Company, debunked most of these rumours as “unfounded” theories. You can watch the video here.

Considering her advice, here are some useful facts about the privacy policy changes to bear in mind:

  1. WhatsApp, as a Facebook company, will now have access to your contacts. This means if you are chatting to someone on WhatsApp and you don’t have them as a friend on Facebook, Facebook will be able to now suggest them as a friend to you
  2. WhatsApp does not have access to your conversations, images and videos shared. This is because WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption
  3. WhatsApp does have access to your location. However, this is a setting that you can turn off. Here’s how:
    • You can disable location permissions for WhatsApp at any time by going to your phone’s Settings > Apps & notifications > Advanced > App permissions > Location > turn off WhatsApp
    • Alternatively, if you recently opened WhatsApp, you can go to your phone’s Settings > Apps & notifications > WhatsApp > Permissions > turn off Location
  4. WhatsApp can access your WhatsApp status, and you will be able to share this to Facebook and other WhatsApp-owned platforms

If something is free, then you are the ‘product’

Social media platforms and websites use the information you allow them to collect to sell to businesses for advertising and marketing purposes. For example, when you “accept cookies” when visiting a website, you are sharing your IP address and browsing information with that site, which it can then use to remarket its products to you.

As Sadleir suggests in her address on the privacy policy changes, it’s not unusual for a company to say “in order for you to use our platform, you have to agree to our terms and conditions”. She also reiterates that Facebook, for example, is a “company out to make money” and that “we pay with every morsel of information that we give them”.

What WhatsApp, as a Facebook company, is doing, is increasing its data-sharing capacity, which it will then share with other Facebook-owned companies.

The great migration to Telegram or Signal

Both Telegram and Signal have become household names, and particularly so after the new WhatsApp privacy policy was released.

Telegram describes itself as a free messaging app with a focus on speed and security. It can be used across multiple devices – smartphones, tablets or computers. The app has more than 500-million active monthly users. Compared with WhatsApp’s two billion active monthly users, this can be considered significant.

Some sources do suggest that Telegram also has plans to monetise its service. This will most likely be through collecting data and selling it to businesses to use.

Signal is a similar messaging platform, priding itself on its “state-of-the-art end-to-end encryption”. The platform suggests that this keeps conversations secure. “We can’t read your messages or listen to your calls, and no one else can either. Privacy isn’t an optional mode – it’s just the way that Signal works. Every message, every call, every time.”

According to an article on Mashable, “Signal has previously been the communication method of choice for activists, people in the hacker community, and others concerned about privacy.”

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk is also a fan of this messaging platform, as he indicates in this tweet on 7 January 2021:

The big debate

All three messaging platforms promise to protect your information by using technology such as end-to-end encryption.

Although companies’ terms and conditions are often long-winded, it is advisable that you read through them, or at least do some research about them.

This will help you understand what you’re signing up for in terms of data-sharing. It is important to understand what information is being collected. Armed with this information, you’ll be able to control certain aspects of data collection and have control over what you share with your messaging platform of choice.

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