To leave or not to leave.... what are the alternatives? 

12.01.21 11:11 AM Comment(s) By Jonathan Faurie

Whatsapp has caused the first controversy of 2021. What alternatives do you have come February 8?

The dust has barely settled from the New Years celebrations and we are already into our first drama of 2021. Whatsapp has decided to update its privacy statement which apparently allows it to sell certain information to Facebook.


Predictably, this has left a sour taste in many peoples mouths with a significant number of Whatsapp users exiting stage left. The world is being run by data and we are very protective of our privacy. So, what are the alternatives to Whatsapp and are they any better? Let us unpack this debate.


Go back to the beginning

To fully appreciate the issue, we need to start at the beginning. I read an interview on Moneyweb where Moneyweb journalist, Dudu Ramela, spoke to Arthur Goldstuck, CEO of World Wide Worx, to unpack the issue. The written transcript of the interview, as well as an audio version, can be found here.


Ramela: What is it that one needs to know to make an informed decision about whether to stay or to go?


Goldstuck: Thank you, Dudu. The first thing to know is that, if you do go, it means that you will not be able to keep in contact with most of your connections – family, friends, contacts – using WhatsApp as the main communication channel. If you use email primarily, if you use SMS or voice, or even Facebook Messenger for that matter, you will find that WhatsApp in South Africa is used by more than half the population. So, you have got to consider that before looking at all the other issues.


There are two main issues that people are concerned about. The one is that people think this means Facebook would have access to the content of the chat – and that is not true. Facebook cannot access the content of any WhatsApp chat because it is encrypted. There are exceptions if you are involved in criminal activity, or [authorities] believe that you are a suspect or a person of interest in a terrorism case. Then they have the right to use various tools and techniques to access those messages. But besides those extreme circumstances, the contents of your messaging are completely secure.


The real issue here is that they are going to allow Facebook and WhatsApp to combine information about usage of the apps and your smartphone. So, if you use WhatsApp, for example, it automatically has access to your entire contacts list. And, in effect, that is what Facebook is telling you to share – from WhatsApp to Facebook – so they can target you more accurately based on how many people you are in touch with, what kinds of communication you have with those people, not what is in it. But the fact that you are involved in video communication, for example, could be used to target advertising at you.


But, generally speaking, they can access your location data, the speed of your phone, or the battery level of your phone, to tell you are the kind of person who often lets your phone run down, for example, or who your real mobile operator is. All of that kind of information starts adding up to create a profile that allows their advertisers to target you more precisely.


Ramela: Is it just WhatsApp, or are there plenty of other applications that actually do this? Dies it really matter.


Goldstuck: If you consider the extent to which you have been giving permission to Google over the years, then you could say that it does not make a difference because, if you use an Android phone, really Google has access to all your phone information and your current behaviour – not the contents, but certainly the activity. And then if you combine that with Google Search, for example, and Gmail and Google Maps and YouTube, suddenly they have a vast picture of who you are, what you search for, and what you buy. That is where you have really given up your privacy. So, it is the same situation that applies now with Facebook and WhatsApp and Instagram, combining all the data on you so they start taking a big picture.  So, to avoid that, you have got to go to a completely independent messaging app.


Ramela: Facebook has been hacked on a number of occasions. A lot of people are also worried about privacy in terms of security.


Goldstuck: Security of the contents of your messages tends not to be an issue. It is the security of your personal data that becomes an issue. Facebook has not plugged the hole that allowed hackers, for example, to send you a link pretending, for example, that it is a video that includes something about you, or something embarrassing about you. You click on that link and what you really do is give permission to access your account, and that then starts giving access to deeper levels of information about you. Ultimately, they are looking for bank-account information and the ability to access your financial data as well as the actual money.


Ramela: What are the alternatives?


Goldstuck: Of two alternatives on the market at the moment the best known one is Telegram, which was started by Russian developers and in fact is not what you might call a pro-Russian app, because the Russian authorities banned it for two years because they refused to co-operate with them. That is perhaps the most widely used of the more secure apps. It does not share your information with any other application, so it does not allow any advertisers to build up a profile about you. You also have a desktop version of it, for example. So that is a little trick that WhatsApp introduced not too long ago.


The other big one is Signal. Signal was developed by, among others, the person who created WhatsApp, so he understands what it takes to create this kind of application, but also what the issues were. The reason that he left Facebook was because he disagreed with the direction of WhatsApp. And Signal is partly in response to that. So Signal is probably the most secure and the least likely to share your information or make your information available to any other application.


Ramela: Who is regulating all of these social media platforms in terms of making sure that users’ data is not abused, if you will.


Goldstuck: Here is the real problem. Regulators have been asleep at the wheel because it is technology and regulators tend to be the establishment’s real old-timers, even running governments around the world. They tend to have the courts behind the times in terms of the significance of these apps and also how widespread their use is. Only now, for example, are American antitrust authorities starting to look at the issue of whether Facebook should be allowed to integrate Instagram into its services. Because Instagram goes way back to 2011, at that stage the transaction was approved because the regulators had no idea of its significance.


The same with WhatsApp in 2014. So, Facebook is now arguing, hey, this is a moot issue because you already gave us approval back then. The difference is back then they had no idea of the extent to which so much information could be aggregated across all of these apps.


Ramela: Interesting. It has got a lot of people talking, and we will see what happens come February 8, whether people will leave or stay with WhatsApp.


Greener pastures?

So where to from here? It does sound a bit dodgy that Facebook does not want to read your messages but wants to access our personal information such as contact lists and geolocations.


So, what are the alternatives? There are two that seem to be very popular in South Africa, and one that may prove to be popular going forward. A recent article by the Indian Express discussed these in detail.



The article points out that, currently, the best alternative to WhatsApp if one were to consider the security features and the fact that this is run by a non-profit firm.


-  Security Features. It has end-to-end encryption based on the Signal protocol, built by American cryptographer Moxie Marlinspike, who is also the CEO of Signal. It means no third-party or even Signal can read your messages. The Signal protocol is open source, which is another good thing. Signal does not support third-party backups either, which is actually a good thing. All data remains stored locally on the device, and if you do lose access to the device and try to set up Signal on another phone, your previous chat history is lost;

-  Cross-Platform. Yes, the private messaging app can be used across platforms from Android, iOS, iPad, Mac, Windows and Linux as well. Signal is quite easy to use. The app shows the name of the contacts that are on Signal, which makes it easy for you to connect;

-  Free or paid? Ads? Signal is totally free. The app is run by a non-profit. Former WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton helped found the Signal foundation along with Marlinspike, and has also poured in $50 million to fund the app. It does not sell your data or monetise it and does not have advertisements;

-  Groups, video, and audio calls. Yes, it supports Group features with a maximum of 150 members. It has recently added Group video calls. The app also supports regular video and audio calls, which are also end-to-end encrypted;

-  Disappearing Messages. Yes, you can turn on disappearing messages for each chat, which is great. The time can be set by you ranging from five seconds to one week;

-  Screen Lock, Other features. Yes, there is a screen lock feature. You can also set a PIN to the Signal account to keep your account secure. There is also an incognito keyboard option, which basically does not allow your keyboard to save what you are typing. Other features include fingerprint lock, read Receipts, location sharing, relay calls, archive chats, and more. There is also a feature called Message Requests, which gives you the option to block, delete, or accept messages from an unknown person. Signal lets you react to any message with emojis. You also get the option to not allow a user to take chat screenshots. In order to add anyone in a group, the individual will be required to accept the group invitation, unlike WhatsApp. The storage management of the app is really good and quite similar to WhatsApp. You can clear messages, remove videos or images, and check different files in the storage management tool;

-  Data collected. The key priority of Signal is user privacy, which is why the app does not collect any user data, as per the privacy labels provided on the App Store. The app only stores your phone number or contact information.  When it comes to data collection, this is one of the most minimal apps out there. You can learn more about the Signal app here.



The Indian Express article adds that Telegram is another popular alternative Whatsapp and you will likely find a lot of your friends there. A user will not really find it difficult to switch to this app as it is simple to use and has most of the WhatsApp users. In fact, some of the Telegram features are not present in WhatsApp.


-  Security features. Telegram is encrypted, and it is open source, though in the past issues have been raised about its encryption. While normal chats are not end-to-end encrypted, as they are on Signal and WhatsApp, if you start a secret chat on Telegram, it is secured and does not get saved. You can also set a timer to destruct these secret chat messages. To protect the data that is not covered by end-to-end encryption, the company uses a distributed infrastructure. Regarding the issue over end-to-end encryption, Telegram CEO Pavel Durov wrote in a blog, “We rely on our own distributed cross-jurisdictional encrypted cloud storage which we believe is much more protected,” compared to say Apple or Google;

-  Cross-platform. Yes, it is a cross-platform app, which is available on Android, iOS, Mac, Windows. Given it relies on its own cloud backup, Telegram ensures that when you set up the app on a different device, the entire chat history is retained;

-  Free or paid? Ads? Telegram is free. It is an ad-free service for now. But Telegram recently announced its monetisation plans as the company says the project of this “size needs at least a few hundred million dollars per year to keep going.” The service also confirmed that the advertisement interface will be user-friendly, and it will respect user’s privacy, which means no data will be taken. As per Telegram, it will soon launch premium features for business or power users. The current features will remain free for all the Telegram users, but the new ones might fall in the premium plan. The company will also add ads in massive public channels. Note that one-on-one and private group chats will not have ads;

-  Groups, video, and audio calls. Telegram is really popular for groups and allows more than 200,000 users in a group. It also supports audio and video calls as well. Interestingly all video calls are end-to-end encrypted;

-  Disappearing Messages. Disappearing messages are part of the Secret Chat feature and you can set a timer for messages. The time range offered is one second to one week;

-  Screen Lock, Other Features. The best part about Telegram is it is a cloud service, which is why you do not need to worry about backing up chats to other servers to restore them on a new device. With Telegram, you can access your data from any of your devices as the data is synchronised across all your registered devices through cloud-based service. The good part about Telegram is you can send up to 1.5GB of files, create channels, add up to 2 lakh users in a group, forward files without downloading them, schedule messages, archive chats, and more. Telegram allows users to find anyone by username or phone number. Further users can edit messages as well. Telegram even displays the name of the original source from where you have forwarded a message and once you tap on it, you will be redirected to that group or channel. Telegram supports Picture-in-Picture mode, which means that you can video call while using other apps like Instagram. On Telegram, a group admin can set different permissions for every user. Telegram offers really cool and fun animated stickers, which you will not find on any other messaging app. In order to create an account, you just need to provide your mobile number and some basic information;

-  Data collected. The data collected by Telegram includes name, phone number, contacts, and user ID, according to the privacy label on the Apple App Store.


Viber is the wild card in the South African market as it has not received massive amount of airtime in terms of an attractive alternative to Whatsapp. However, the Indian Express article points out that it may be more attractive than we think.


-  Security Features. This is yet another privacy messenger app, which supports end-to-end encryption. All types of messages, photos, videos, voice and video calls and group chats are encrypted. The company says that everyone will have to make sure that they are using the latest version of Viber to get maximum protection. Similar to WhatsApp, all your chats can be backed up to Google Drive, from where you can restore your chats. Viber says that once you upload your chats to Google, it will not be responsible for your data protection and privacy will depend on Google’s policy;

-  Cross-Platform. Yes, Viber can be used across platforms from Android, iOS, and Windows as well;

-  Free or paid? Ads? Like all the other apps, Viber is also free. However, you will witness a few ads in the popular messaging app. The company says, “Showing you these tailored and relevant offers help us keep the app free for you to use.” “Since we do not have access to your chats, neither advertising providers nor brands can access your chats. The content of your chats stays in your chats always and never will be used for showing your relevant ads,” Viber said in a blog post;

-  Groups, video, and audio calls. Yes, it supports Group features with up to 250 members. One can only add members by sending an invitation to a Viber user. This feature works similar to Signal. The app also supports regular video and audio calls that are also end-to-end encrypted;

-  Disappearing Messages. Similar to Telegram, you get a secret chat mode here too. You can set the timer, and screenshot/forwarding feature is disabled. The time can be set by you ranging from one second to one week;

-  Screen Lock, Other features. The screen lock feature is available, but not for the mobile version. You can send stickers and GIFs, delete, or edit messages, share location, voice messages, and share files. You can create your own GIF, search, and send YouTube videos in the app itself and do a lot of other things. However, the privacy features that Signal offers are not present in both Telegram and Viber;

-  What data does Viber collect? Viber collects location and device ID identifiers. It also collects device ID identifiers. It collects phone numbers, user ID, product interaction, purchase history, other contact information such as email ID, name, and contacts.


In the end, privacy matters

Privacy does matter. We want to be able to use these social media platforms confident that we can do so without any concerns about where Big Brother is watching. Privacy does matter.


There are a few interesting questions that need to be asked at this juncture.


The first is, can we live without Facebook and other social media platforms in the modern age? While there are a lot of people in the world without a social media presence at all, there is a reason why Facebook has so many users. If Facebook were a country, it would be the third most populous country in the world. Facebook is mostly used to communicate with people in far flung corners of the world, to provide people with a platform to publicise their lives (vomit), and for people to consume news. It is also increasingly being used for people to do business and to connect with small businesses. If this is the case, why does Facebook have such an obsession with a free user model. Let us answer this. Facebooks current user base is 2,7 billion users. If Facebook charged its users $0.50 a year, it would generate an annual income of close to $1,3 billion. This is significantly less than what it made from advertising revenue in 2019, which was $69 billion. To get close to the last benchmark, Facebook would either have to reach 7 billion users, which is impossible considering that the world population is 8 billion (as of 2020), or it would have to charge its 2,7 billion users about $25/year.


Therefore, the advertising model is significantly more profitable. So how long will Facebook get away with this. In order to get more advertising revenue, advertising needs to be more relevant. In order for it to be more relevant, it needs to be targeted. In order for it to be targeted, it needs data.


Facebook could just ask people about what their expectations are when it comes to advertising. But would they get a genuine answer? No. They only way to guarantee proper data is to use the methods discussed earlier in the blog. So, when will Facebook finally stop this? When the US will finally catches up with the rest of the world and entrenches the right of privacy as a Constitutional Right thereby forcing Facebook to take data privacy seriously. The UK led this with the GDPR, and many countries followed in its wake. By entrenching this right into the constitution, you are guaranteeing that companies cannot take advantage of the public’s right to privacy and it is punishable by law. Companies who do not comply with the GDPR face massive fines and a restraint of trade that is debilitating. A recent report showed that Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) has fined Twitter €450 000 (around $546 000) over a data breach it disclosed back in January 2019, the regulator announced today. The security flaw exposed some supposedly private tweets from the service’s Android users for over four years. Twitter was found to have violated the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) because it failed to notify the regulator within 72 hours of discovering the breach, The Wall Street Journal reports.


The fine is notable because it is the first time a US tech giant has been hit with a GDPR fine in a cross-border case, meaning one in which the Irish regulator consulted its EU counterparts as part of the decision. The investigation was headed by Ireland’s DPC because Ireland is where Twitter’s international headquarters are based.


The major problem

There are a few problems which sees Facebook, and Whatsapp, sitting in the pound seats.


The first is that Whatsapp are technically not doing anything wrong. Whatsapp is owned by Facebook and until the US has privacy laws which governs what companies can do with private data, companies will do what they like because they are not breaking any laws. Further, Whatsapp is telling you that this is happening and that you have to agree to these new updates (opt in), failure to do so will see you deleted from Whatsapp (forcibly opted out). This is taking compliance to a new level.


The second problem is that almost half of the world’s population uses Whatsapp. Teleporting all of your contacts to a single platform is going to be a mission. The strength of Whatsapp – and they know this – is that the public has proven that Whatsapp is the best messaging software in the market, and until another platform can make same claim, the userbase will be fragmented in terms of multiplatform as opposed to the current single platform we see now. People also do not like having to communicate with half of their contacts on platform and half on another, so we will probably see a lot of people accepting the new terms come February 8.


What is the fuss about?

What is Facebook going to try and do with this information? Sell you stuff? Put more adverts on your timeline for stuff that you never told Facebook you were looking for? I have been doing some research for my wife on my birthday present for this year and guess what, Facebook placed adverts for those items on my timeline. So, Facebook does not need Whatsapp to spy on people. People would also like to think that their data is not being used in advertising. The spoiler alert here is that Facebook and Google are using your data for targeted ads.


People are also waiting in anticipation for smart devices that help you live your life. Run out of milk, your fridge will send you a message about this and will inform you about all of the specials that grocery stores are having regarding milk. Will these devices not be using your data for targeted advertising purposes? Will it be ok for these advertisements to be targeted but others not? MMMMM…


Data is running the world. It is what is making technology smarter, more convenient and life changing. Yes, companies will be chomping at the bit to get hold of this kind of data, and that may not be a bad thing. Would you rather see 100 worthless advertisements on your Facebook timeline of items that you do not actually want, or would you rather see 10 advertisements about things that you want and will make a difference in your life? And if you have such an issue with how Facebook uses your data, delete Facebook. Whatsapp is just doing what its owner is telling it to do. 

Jonathan Faurie

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