Unsurprisingly, this has caused quite a backlash with many taking to other social media – Twitter, mainly – to express their opposition to the changes and encourage people to switch to Signal and Telegram, two other messaging apps which offer end-to-end encryption.
But are these reactions justified? Should you stop using WhatsApp too?
The short answer is no. None of this is true: the changes don’t affect private messages and calls, which will still have end-to-end encryption.
What exactly is WhatsApp changing on 8 February 2021?
You can read all about the updates and FAQ on WhatsApp’s website, but here’s a summary of the important stuff:
- Private messages will still be encrypted
- Facebook (and WhatsApp) won’t be able to read your messages
- WhatsApp doesn’t log who you are messaging or calling
- WhatsApp and Facebook cannot see your shared location
- WhatsApp contacts will not be shared with Facebook
- WhatsApp group chats remain private
- Any communication with a business on WhatsApp may not remain private
In terms of data being shared with Facebook, this has been happening for years and probably without users realising: it’s not changing now. When Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014 it then allowed users to opt out of sharing data via a notification that appeared for a short period in 2016. But those who didn’t use that opportunity or didn’t subsequently opt out manually, plus anyone who signed up since then will have – by default – granted Facebook permission to have their phone number and WhatsApp name.
Will Cathcart, head of WhatsApp at Facebook said, “Not everyone may realise how common it is to WhatsApp message businesses in many countries. In fact, about 175 million people message a business account each day on WhatsApp and more want to do so.”
He also said, “It’s important for us to be clear this update describes business communication and does not change WhatsApp’s data sharing practices with Facebook. It does not impact how people communicate privately with friends or family wherever they are in the world.”
WhatsApp’s EMEA policy director Niamh Sweeney tweeted: “There are no changes to WhatsApp’s data-sharing practices in the Europe arising from this update. It remains the case that WhatsApp does not share European Region WhatsApp user data with Facebook for the purpose of Facebook using this data to improve its products or ads.”
3/5 There are no changes to WhatsApp’s data-sharing practices in the Europe arising from this update. It remains the case that WhatsApp does not share European Region WhatsApp user data with Facebook for the purpose of Facebook using this data to improve its products or ads.
— Niamh Sweeney (@NiamhSweeneyNYC)
January 7, 2021
An infographic was posted by the official WhatsApp Twitter account on 12 January in an attempt to clarify the changes and to try and stem the tide of users jumping ship to Signal.
Signal has shot to the top of the app charts on the Apple App Store, and is said to have had over 100,000 signups since the notifications started appearing. Telegram, which doesn’t enable encryption by default but offers it, said 25 million people had signed up in just 72 hours, and that it now has more than 500 million users.
Of course, your decision now is whether you trust what Facebook and WhatsApp is saying about the changes. It’s inconvenient to have to switch to a new app, but you’ll also have to persuade everyone else you chat to do the same which is why the furore is unlikely to cause any significant proportion of WhatsApp users to ditch the service.