By Angela Nardelli / ASG
It is well known that WhatsApp is the most used messaging app all over the world and, indeed, the Californian business can boast 2 billions of active users. The platform was launched 11 years ago, but it reached the turning point only in 2014, when Facebook bought it for 19 billion dollars. Its raise was also accompanied by a significant update, the end-to-end encryption – a tool by which conversations cannot be violated.
In the first place, the main updates concern data processing methods and Facebook tools that businesses can use to manage their chats.
What’s up with WhatsApp?
Something changed, but those living in the EU do not need to worry about it right now: the director for the Policy of Whatsapp Niamh Sweeney clarified it in a tweet. She also added that users’ data will not be used to improve Facebook advertising: “There are no changes to WhatsApp’s data-sharing practices in 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.”
Unlike other countries, in the EU we have the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR ) which has been protecting data and privacy of EU citizens since 2018. In particular, GDPR regulates and hinders the data spreading inside and outside Europe. In this specific case, the Californian business Facebook Inc., which also owns WhatsApp Inc., would have to reach an agreement with WhatsApp Ireland Limited – the data controller responsible for European users’ data – to share these data.
What’s the purpose, WhatsApp?
Which are the alternatives?
In the last weeks, the WhatsApp move has raised an intricate debate whose most direct and tangible effect is the exodus of millions of people to other instant messaging apps, above all Telegram and Signal. Both of them have specific characteristics through which they can be compared to WhatsApp.
Signal is a free and open source app owned by a non-profit foundation, Signal Technology Foundation, while WhatsApp belongs to a private company. It means that Signal cannot be linked to other companies, whereas WhatsApp does – as the Facebook affair proves. Both apps have end-to-end encryption, but with a difference in the combination of the X3DH (Extended Triple Diffie-Hellman) protocol and the Double Ratchet Algorithm. Because of its specific combination, Signal allows for safer and private conversations between users.
In addition, telephone numbers are not linked to Signal’s profiles and users have a nickname that does not allow conversation monitoring. Signal, therefore, retains few meta-data (such as information about the date and time of messages, calls, last access, etc.).The difference between these two messaging platforms is even bigger after the last WhatsApp update, which regards users privacy and data sharing as mentioned above. From February 8th, in all the countries outside the EU, WhatsApp requires its users to agree to share their data with Facebook. On the contrary, Signal is not interested in monetizing data, due to its non-profit nature.
Released in 2013 by Nikolaj and Pavel Durov, Telegram has reached more than 25 millions downloads in the three days after the WhasApp update notification.
In the same way of Singal, Telegram does not link users’ profiles with their telephone numbers but with a nickname. In addition, users can create open groups up to 200 thousand people and share big files in high quality. Chats can be of types traditional or secret: the first ones can be viewed by all devices, the second are safer and users can delete messages on all devices.
On the other side, both Telegram and WhatsApp retain unencrypted meta-data, such as with whom, how long and where conversations between users have taken place – Signal does not. For this reason, Signal is safer than Telegram and WhatsApp and the data security question – or better, what people think about it in this specific case – could explain what happened in the days after January 7th.
The phenomenon that has taken place after the WhatsApp update can bring us to many considerations about the role that the digital world plays in our lives. Many people think that being online is very important and often they struggle to distinguish the real world from the online one.
Indeed, some necessities are or have become of paramount importance in our society: we normally need to be connected and to engage with others and now – during the pandemic – we feel these needs even stronger. Luciano Floridi – professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Informations at the University of Oxford – calls this digital space Infosfera. This place is created by the flow of information controlled by the Big Tech of the Silicon Valley. These have, Floridi says, the digital sovereignty which they exercise in security, health, school and border control matters. They do what they can to keep it. Thereby, for Floridi it is important to set new and clear rules: in the first place, to define an ontology of this space; secondly, to let institutions take back this sort of sovereignty, establishing their own rules.From this point of view, the users’ reaction and their interest in data security matters is hardly surprising. But we have to remember that questions on data availability and circulation were still open on 7th January, they have been before that date, and they will remain open for a long time in the Infosfera world. In this parallel universe, made of connections, data and meta-data sharing, we can be smart and we can use social networks and apps for our benefit. We still need information, privacy and security, but we also need the ontology of this emerging and fast developing world to be established on firm rules.
Translation from Italian by Valeria Balestra