Which is better for Privacy ? WhatsApp or Signal

2021-03-15 tech tech

Introduction

Surprise, surprise people are not moving in droves from WhatsApp to Signal. The initial fear of having your messages read does not seem to concern people that much after all. Also the entire confusion about it has been cleared up since then.

Here is a brief comparison of WhatsApp and Signal on the matter of privacy. Together we will see if the all the fuss in moving over to Signal from WhatsApp is worth it.

What is Signal ?

If you are late to the party, you might be asking yourself, what is Signal. Signal is the privacy-first messaging app. In recent month it has gained a reputation as WhatsApp main competitor.

What is WhatsApp ?

WhatsApp, which seems to have been around for forever now, was acquired to be part of Facebook’s bouquet of messaging options. You can place video, voice calls and of course messages at low cost over the app. It is still the top messaging app on the Android play store.

Concerns about privacy

The fire that lighted this conversation was when Facebook announced their intention to make tweaks to the privacy policy on WhatsApp. The policy was initially supposed to take effect on February 8th 2021, but due to concerns by WhatsApp customers, it has been delayed for 3 months. Hence, as at the time of writing this post, it will now commence on 15th May 2021.

The policy in question can be found here. Elon Musk also sent out a tweet which went viral. This tweet positioned Signal as a competitor to WhatsApp.

You may not already know, so I will like to use this opportunity to clarify a few points about the information sharing;

WhatsApp already shares some information

Since 2016, WhatsApp has shared certain information with Facebook. The most obvious being your phone number.

WhatsApp conversations are encrypted

WhatsApp would not look at your phone calls or read your chat messages. The start of every WhatsApp chat has the notice “Messages and calls are end to end encrypted. No one outside of this chat, not even WhatsApp can read or listen to them. Tap to learn more”. On tapping to learn more, you land on a page which speaks more on how privacy and security is in the DNA of the WhatsApp team.

Encrypted conversations mean that not even the maintainers of the platform can unravel the messages sent in transit.

Additional assurances from WhatsApp

Additional assurances that WhatsApp have put out on this include;

  • WhatsApp cannot see your private message or hear your calls
  • Facebook cannot see your private messages or hear your calls
  • WhatsApp cannot see your location and neither can Facebook
  • WhatsApp would not keep logs of everyone who is calling and messaging
  • WhatsApp does not share your contact list with Facebook
  • You can still set your messages to disappear

Which Information is collected ?

Let us take off the cloak of ignorance. What exactly are both apps collecting?

WhatsApp

WhatsApp data collection exercise would include;

  • Device information
  • Advertising data
  • Purchase history
  • Coarse location
  • Phone number
  • Email address
  • Contacts
  • Performance and diagnostic data

Signal

Signal’s data collection includes nothing at all. Signal would store only your phone number.

Features

WhatsApp

WhatsApp has the following features which a lot of us know too well;

  • Document sharing
  • Contact sharing
  • Share your live location
  • Video calls
  • Voice calls
  • Encrypted messaging
  • Disappearing status messages ( Status disappears after 24 hours )
  • Mute group chats
  • Advancing search of text across chats or in specific groups
  • Prevent contacts from viewing your status
  • Read messages without letting the other party know
  • Delete messages after you have sent them
  • Limit data used by WhatsApp
  • Pin conversations
  • Star specific chats
  • Format messages ( options are changing fonts, making bold, italics, and strike through )
  • Cloud backup on Google drive
  • Changing your WhatsApp number
  • Change chat background

Wow. That was a long list. No wonder we are all so fond of the app.

Signal

We know what we get from WhatsApp, however what are you getting by being on Signal? Signal has the following features;

  • Open Source Protocol
  • Self-destructing messages after given time frame (between five seconds to seven days )
  • Uses phone’s data connection to void SMS and MSS fees
  • Encrypted stickers
  • Group chat
  • View-once media (one-time viewable image that disappears after the recipient views it once )
  • The option to send media, contacts, and location
  • Images are capped at 6MB
  • Video, audio, and documents are capped at 100MB
  • Allows for chat groups up to 1,000 participants
  • Allows for voice and video calling up to five people

Similarities

Let us look at how both these services are the same. What do they have in common?

Well both share one core similarity. That is both are messaging apps. Both Signal and WhatsApp are end-to-end encrypted messaging platforms that allow users to communicate over Wi-Fi or cell data. Hence this lowers your communication cost

Differences

Signal is open whilst WhatsApp is a closed book

In relation to privacy, there is one immediate difference that comes to mind which I would like to share. Signal, operated by the non-profit Signal Foundation. And yes, it is open source! I was surprised when I heard about it too.

Signal’s entire code can be found here on Github . Signal’s source code is published for anyone to examine and use under a GPLv3 license for clients and an AGPLv3 license for the server. This means that you can see exactly what’s going on inside it.

Advantages of WhatsApp

Established stability and a large user base

Businesses have built profiles and year long strategies around WhatsApp. To ask them to drop it now for a new platform means expending resources in that direction. Stick with WhatsApp if you want keep your hold on your customer segment and not have someone else eats it up.

Lots of app integrations

There are a lot of app integrations that have been done by other developers to WhatsApp. Hence, you can find apps to make chats easier. Examples which come to mind are;

  • Using stickers
  • Apps to make downloading of the images and videos on WhatsApp status easier

This community of partnerships is a part of what makes WhatsApp so appealing.

Disadvantages of WhatsApp

Tainted history

In comparison to Signal, WhatsApp history has made it liable to be misinterpreted and misunderstood. Nothing is worse than being misunderstood. The entire row with the data sharing policy proves this if nothing else.

Advantages of Signal

Minimalist

Signal has a minimal feel. It removes so much of the clutter that some apps have. You enter and straight away you get to do the most important thing. Reading your messages.

Fewer messages

I do not have to see 500 + unread messages on Signal. People are still onboarding themselves to the Signal platform, hence the messages I receive are not just fewer but really important messages from people I really want to speak with.

Send messages to yourself

There is a feature on Signal called “Note to self”. This allows me to basically chat with myself. It is like a personal notepad.

Devoid of bots

I am yet to receive a message from a bot on Signal. However that is refreshing. On both WhatsApp and Telegram you can communicate with bots. Perhaps bots will be introduced soon. However at least for now, the messages I receive from Signal are from genuine people.

Disadvantages of Signal

Compared to WhatsApp, Signal is relatively unknown

People still do not know how to place or categorize Signal. Questions are bound to be asked by all of us. These are questions like;

  • Can I communicate with clients with it?
  • Can I communicate with my students with it?

This and many more make it seem like we are all figuring out how Signal plays a role in our lives. Consequently, business does not have a presence on Signal yet. Perhaps in the following months this may change.

Not available on web

Signal cannot be used on a browser. However, there does exist a desktop client for users.

No cloud backups

Signal allows only local backups, and does not backup content on the cloud.

Did you know ?

Dramatic leap forward

Signal saw a 4200% increase in user downloads in the week WhatsApp announced users would have to begin giving some data to its parent company, Facebook.

Both share the same co-founder

Brian Acton, a co-founder of WhatsApp is also a co-founder of signal?

Lots of services share your data

Interestingly enough, there are a few services that we use that have us as the product. Yet people do not seem to mind and use these services because of the value we get from these services.

An important point to note is that a lot of them share your data only after you have consented.

Conclusion

We do not mind sharing data

The question I would leave all of us with is this. Do people mind if their messages are potentially scanned and read ? As someone said to me, we should just live our lives because our information is already out there.

From my point of view the answer seems to be no.

The oldest approach is the most secure

Again, I would say that the most sensitive conversations are rarely ever heard on the platform of an app. Considering the mirage of voice calling and video calling options we have out there (I would not want to name names) a lot of them do not claim to 100 % protect our conversations.

So if you have sensitive, intimate or a delicate piece of information you want to convey to another party this is what I would suggest. Have it face to face (F2F). We want to be sure that the other person clearly understands you and no room are left for misinterpretation.

This is by far the oldest approach and by far the most secure.

WhatsApp is still not a bad choice

Unfortunately, in this period when people have to communicate remotely, then I would suggest that using WhatsApp is still not a bad choice.

Signal offers the best privacy

I would recommend you go with Signal if you want the absolute best security and privacy from any messaging app out there.

A viable third alternative

I would end with a cliff hanger. If you were tired of the conversation of WhatsApp and Signal and wanted another option, then Telegram is what I would recommend.

Your opinion

What are your thoughts on what I have shared? Do you care if you data are shared? Kindly share with me. Take care until next time.