icyphox's avatar

What's next after WhatsApp?

Let's not act surprised here, this was bound to happen

Update 2021-01-17: I’m now using Signal. It’s fine for now, but we can do better.

Ever since Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19bn, it was blatantly obvious that they wanted in on the massive userbase, and consequently, the data they could collect. The acquisition wasn’t all too bad at first, I’ll admit — they added in full E2EE via the Signal Protocol, their privacy policy wasn’t all too bad, at least for a Facebook product. While I obviously didn’t enjoy using it — being the only non-free app on my phone — I could still put up with it, considering how ubiquitous it is here in India.

That will no longer be the case, however. With the new privacy policy introduced by WhatsApp, the below data will be collected and shared with Facebook and its associated companies (quoting from the privacy policy):

  • Account Information. Your phone number, profile name and photo, online status and status message, last seen status, and receipts may be available to anyone who uses our Services, although you can configure your Services settings to manage certain information available to other users.
  • Your Contacts and Others. Users with whom you communicate may store or reshare your information (including your phone number or messages) with others on and off our Services. You can use your Services settings and the block feature in our Services to manage the users of our Services with whom you communicate and certain information you share.

And if you don’t consent to these — i.e., you don’t click on “Agree” on the pop-up about the new terms, you can no longer use WhatsApp. Naturally, I didn’t.

Now, it’s fairly common knowledge that the entirety of India revolves around WhatsApp. Everything happens over WhatsApp. Invoices, shopping, general logistics and operations, and in my case — university communications. I’d even declare WhatsApp as “critical infrastructure”, like power and water; without which the country cannot function. That’s a scary thought in itself — imagine an entire nation relying on Facebook for something so pivotal.

So what are my options? I can either switch to a new messaging app, or ditch instant messaging altogether. Let’s explore these.

There are some neat potential alternatives to WhatsApp, the most popular one being Signal. While I think Signal is technically sound, I’m skeptical about using it primarily due to its centralized nature, hosted in the US. Moxie is openly against federation/decentralization.1

And then there’s Session, a fork of Signal that aims to be completely decentralized. It uses onion routing, similar to Tor. It does involve some blockshit, but the actual messaging is all done over onion routing (they call it “onion requests”). From about 5 minutes of usage, I can tell that the app’s UI is very nicely done. It does suffer from severe UX issues though — you can’t add someone from your address book, rather, you have to paste their Session ID (a long alphanumeric) to initiate a conversation. In its current state, Session is more “tech for tech people” than “tech for the average user”.

And then there’s the issue of actually getting people to use an alternate messaging app. I know that 99% percent of the people I talk to on WhatsApp don’t care about the new privacy policy. I also know that they’re not going to switch for just one guy (me). Further, the network effects are enormous. Assuming they did switch, they’d then have to convince all their contacts to do so as well — which isn’t happening.

Which brings me to the second option: ditching IM completely. This option is starting to sound a lot better than having to talk to people about why Facebook is bad, and why privacy matters and why they should quit WhatsApp — for what will be the hundredth time. I don’t see any immediate downsides to it. Sure, I’ll miss out on some socializing but who am I kidding, it’s all mostly smalltalk anyway.

Perhaps that’s what I’ll end up doing — use WhatsApp until it works, and uninstall it after. Matters of immediate attention can be conveyed over a phone call. Otherwise, an SMS/email should do.

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