WhatsApp Alternatives Signal, Telegram Grow in Popularity after App Updates Privacy Policy

Chat apps including Signal and Telegram have enjoyed a surge in downloads this week as privacy conscious users seek alternatives to Facebook-owned WhatsApp over an updated policy about data sharing with the social network.

WhatsApp was acquired by the Mark Zuckerberg led company in 2014 for around $19 billion and has evolved into the world's most popular end-to-end encrypted messaging service, now used by more than two billion people in more than 180 countries.

But an incoming update to the company's terms and privacy policy, set to take effect on February 8, raised alarm on social media this week as an alert warned users they would have to agree to the data-sharing to continue using the chat service.

On its website, WhatsApp says it shares categories of information with other Facebook companies, including account registration information, transaction data, mobile device information, profile names or IP addresses, but not the content of messages.

The news prompted a wave of social media posts, as users discussed other viable chat apps on the market. Signal and Telegram emerged as two popular alternatives.

New WhatsApp privacy policy: all data will be shared with FB. This is a reminder that @signalapp is free and they collect next to nothing pic.twitter.com/XpE5nkCNL8

— Michael Weissbacher (@mweissbacher) January 7, 2021

Signal and Telegram are now better alternatives if you are concerned about your privacy. Here’s what a Facebook wants out of you on WhatsApp and it’s own site: pic.twitter.com/uBN5g9ufgx

— Mike Butcher (@mikebutcher) January 7, 2021

If you're looking at migrating out of WhatsApp, @signalapp is a very good option. Signal is developed under Signal Foundation which is a non-profit foundation. It is open source and peer reviewed. Same is not true with Telegram and other market offerings.

— Pratik Sinha (@free_thinker) January 8, 2021

Despite the concern, Facebook officials have said that the changes involve updates to how data is shared between the chat app and the company in relation to messaging with businesses, and consumer use won't be changed by the update.

"The update to our Privacy Policy is about providing clearer, more detailed information to our users on how and why we use data. It's also about improving how businesses use WhatsApp to connect with customers," Niamh Sweeney, WhatsApp's Director of Policy, said in a Twitter thread that attempted to dispel mounting criticism.

Privacy International, a digital rights campaigning organization, said the "notification to accept its new policy or lose your account is wrong on so many levels."

"Truth is, Facebook probably just wants your mobile phone number (if they don't already have it) and your contacts' names and numbers.... why would they want phone numbers so badly? Because they're great globally unique identifiers. Remember: first and foremost Facebook is an advertising company. Your attention is the product."

WhatsApp's notification to accept its new policy or lose your account is wrong on so many levels we need a short thread to talk about it

🧵👇 1/9

— Privacy International (@privacyint) January 7, 2021

Regardless, other apps quickly benefited from the rampant speculation that WhatsApp's data-sharing relationship with its parent firm was becoming more invasive.

Data from analytics firm Sensor Tower obtained by Reuters showed that Signal, a secure chat app, had more than 100,000 downloads from the App and Google stores in the past two days, while another app, Telegram, had nearly 2.2 million downloads.

Signal became a hot topic on Twitter this week after it was endorsed by billionaire Tesla and SpaceX boss Elon Musk, and the social media platform's boss Jack Dorsey.

Use Signal

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 7, 2021

While it did not reveal any exact statistics, Signal tweeted on Thursday that verification codes were being slightly delayed because "so many new people are trying to join." It also provided some tips on how to migrate group chats from other applications.

Verification codes are currently delayed across several providers because so many new people are trying to join Signal right now (we can barely register our excitement). We are working with carriers to resolve this as quickly as possible. Hang in there.

— Signal (@signalapp) January 7, 2021

Telegram tweeted a meme that made light of the data-sharing policy update, suggesting that main Facebook app and the chat service were now increasingly intertwined:

pic.twitter.com/ARzNTrekvQ

— Telegram Messenger (@telegram) January 8, 2021

As noted by The Verge, the social media outrage appears to have grown because the discourse suggested users are being forced to share data with the social network for the first time but in reality it has been happening if they didn't opt-out back in 2016.

But it didn't seem to help that the WhatsApp pop-up alert warned told users that they will lose access if they don't agree—and didn't provide an option to opt-out.

A statement released by WhatsApp said more of its users are using the app to chat with businesses and the updates were needed to "increase transparency."

"The update does not change WhatsApp's data sharing practices with Facebook and does not impact how people communicate privately with friends or family wherever they are in the world," it said, pledging commitment to protecting user privacy.

"We are communicating directly with users through WhatsApp about these changes so they have time to review the new policy over the course of the next month," it said.

WhatsApp logo
In this photo illustration, the social media application logo, WhatsApp is displayed on the screen of a computer on March 15, 2019 in Paris, France. Chesnot/Getty