Updated: Feb 26
While there are many advantages to using Signal over WhatsApp, using it alone will not do much to advance your privacy, unless it's part of a wider habit... Let's take a dive into the real reach of Big Tech, and the ever growing tentacles of Facebook in particular, and why they deny and cover up so much.
everything was going smoothly... or was it?
Like millions of users worldwide, I've been using WhatsApp happily for years. I like it's clean interface, how it handles sharing photos easily, and decent voice calls. Besides the fact that so many people use it, so it's pretty easy to convince your friends or family to use it too.
But with so many other options out there, what made it so successful? One of the key things is the fact that it's end-to-end encrypted by default (unlike many other messaging services) and it's free, with no ads. When Facebook acquired it in 2014, five years after it launched, they told everyone nothing much would change and they would keep it ad-free. So much for that... hardly surprising given Facebook's track record.
Interestingly enough, one of the founders of WhatsApp, Brian Acton, probably saw this coming, and quit the newly owned Facebook company and joined forces with Signal founder Matthew Rosenfeld (aka. Moxie Marlinspike) two years after Signal was launched in 2015. Signal by the way, has been the tool of choice for security experts and journalists for years - because it's damn good. I will return to this point in moment, after explaining why I think the inevitable happened.
Facebook is not just facebook
This section is just to explain why Facebook has a reach far beyond the apps it owns. I've used Facebook and Instagram like many people, and to be honest there has been a very clear trend towards what's happening today with it's services. Facebook has become way more monetized than ever before, constantly prompting you to boost posts or advertise (something, anything... just advertise something already!)
Over the last year in particular it's become increasingly obvious that Facebook and Instagram are merging into one product (not officially as one, though). Now you can do almost everything on either platform linked to the other, including messaging (FB messenger is now fully integrated with Instagram messages), and generally I find it much harder to reach followers or friends.
Of course, for some people this might really work and they probably love it (although I haven't met any yet... do enlighten me), and you will probably tell me that Facebook just changed their algorithms (which of course they do, and they are constantly evolving them), but none of that detracts from the fact that it has become more extreme, and is mercilessly geared towards monetizing everything and anything possible.
Five years ago, that was less the case. It was much easier to chose whether or not you needed to boost a post, and you could see results almost instantly.
Another argument would be that there are way more people using Facebook now, therefore it's much more competitive, so they had to change something. Which is fair enough, but in the process they basically broke Instagram (in my opinion), and Facebook crashes far more frequently than before.
Their algorithms are actually really bad as discerning what's genuine or not. Either that or Mr Zucker is an absolute control freak with really dangerous views (both are possible I guess)
When I count the number of posts on Instagram, 1 in 4 (or 1 in 3 in holiday times) is an advert. Count each time you see an ad just for fun. All this to say, it was only a matter of time before Facebook descended upon WhatsApp with their money machine.
But that's just my experience with it. The big elephant in the room however, is the fact that Facebook has been (and still is) fighting an anti-trust case in the USA, which in short is accusing them of unfair competitive practices and having a monopoly over the social media world. All of which is completely and utterly true, so the Federal government is trying to force them to sell it's subsidiaries.
They bought Beluga to stop it competing with FB messenger, they bought Instagram because it was growing faster than Facebook
They bought WhatsApp because it was a better messenger
They also bought Onavo, a mobile analytic spyware, to be able to asses other apps and steal data from other companies.
They also own a VR company, an AI company, and probably many more. While no one can deny Facebook's money probably helped those companies grow, it was only in Facebook's interest. And if that's not a monopoly, then what is!
The killer fact of this is, that there is a way for Facebook to get out of the anti-trust case, if they can prove that 'Separating the apps would fundamentally change or disrupt the services'. And this is why Facebook is rushing to swallow up Instagram and WhatsApp as fast as they can, by linking all of the services and lines of computer code to make sure that they will break if separated.
With Instagram it was fairly easy, as many people use both, and the intentions of being on there are similar to Facebook, to share content with friends and the public. I imagine most people didn't even notice. But with WhatsApp, they have to tread far more delicately, since more people use it as a secure way of communicating with friends and family (something that Facebook is now realizing to what extent) and they even delayed the update of terms. But mark my words, it will happen, backlash or not - because that's how Facebook will maintain their monopoly and not be forced to sell their purchases.
the true span of facebook inc
If you've made it this far, time to show you how much Facebook can actually see of what you do. (You may want to skip this if you are prone to anxiety). Many of these can be avoided by going into the settings on your phone, then permissions, and toggling off what you don't want to share. If you're really curious, you can use the "Off Facebook Activity Tool" https://www.facebook.com/off_facebook_activity/ and prepare to be stunned.
Microphone. Unless you disable the microphone permission, Facebook IS listening in (although they vehemently deny it, and paid many people to write that they don't - this is why creepy adverts appear when you didn't even search for something, you just mentioned it...) In my opinion this is one of the number one reasons not to use Facebook, it really is creepy.
Browser Activity. Unless you use a browser extension (such as Facebook Container) to stop it, Facebook can see almost ALL your searches and activity in your web browser, even if you don't have it open in a tab.
Ad Targeting. A more obvious one, but by default Facebook targets you with adverts and logs all your activity to do this. You can toggle it off in your Facebook settings though (but you'll still get ads).
Other Apps. Facebook on mobile can also see the other apps you have installed, what you use them for, and use that to target you.
Location. This is a bigger one than you might think. By giving Facebook your location data, you allow it to know all the shops you went into, where you ate, what time you ate, where you frequently visit, and much worse.
Sign in with Facebook. Many sites offer you to sign in with Facebook to save you the trouble of passwords, but of course they use that data too... (never do this by the way, for other security reasons)
Cookies. All those 3rd party cookie policies clicked away - that's mostly going to Facebook.
Contacts. Facebook knows who your friends are, even the ones not on Facebook.
Camera. Presumably only while in use, but who knows...
Calendar. Why would the app ask for this permission unless it wanted data from it?
Phone. Linked to your microphone of course.
I could continue the list, but I think you get the idea, that even if you are logged out, or never had an account, Facebook still has tons of data on you. So even though WhatsApp encrypts your communications, if you have Facebook installed and it has access to your microphone, then that voice call on WhatsApp is not a secret.
use signal (or session)
And not because Elon Musk is... So back to WhatsApp and Signal, the key point of this article. Just to be clear, Facebook cannot read or see your messages in WhatsApp, and overall it is still a very secure messenger compared to others (especially Telegram, which is not secure at all, but they somehow seem to have convinced everyone they are - it's no more secure than FB messenger in reality). Facebook has now started the integration wheel rolling on WhatsApp so it's only a matter of time before that changes. The problem is the more holes they poke into WhatsApp (adverts, sharing contacts, integrating with Facebook Business profiles, etc) the less secure and less private it becomes.
Signal on the other hand, is operated by people with privacy at the core of everything, and the Signal protocol is viewed by many as the gold standard of communication encryption. The only disadvantages in my mind are:
It still requires a phone number (which can also be a good thing - as it can encrypt your SMS and telephone calls as well), although they don't link it to your identity.
It can be a little confusing to know what's encrypted or not if you set it as default SMS service too, since people not using Signal that you send to will not be encrypted. I recommend not setting it to default SMS, just so it's very clear who is on it and who is not from your contacts list.
Other that, Signal is pretty awesome.
I also highly recommend Session https://getsession.org to anyone is is really privacy conscious, as you don't even need a phone number, it creates a token when you start up (using decentralized blockchain technology), and uses onion routing to transfer the messages as well as encryption, and it wipes most metadata. I'll write a post about it very soon. It's also based on the Signal protocol.
While deleting Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp may be a bit extreme for most, at least disable all the invasive permissions that are not necessary, so that they don't compromise the security of your other applications.
When you have options as good as Signal or Session, there is no reason to get nostalgic - especially when doing so could compromise your security further down the road.
Check out our messaging apps comparaison here.