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Terence Steenkamp

WhatsApp says not to worry about your personal data being shared with owner Facebook and third parties, as end-to-end encryption won’t be affected. Some experts, however, have expressed concern the messaging service’s new terms and changes could lead to just that (of course, it doesn’t help WhatsApp’s case that it’s been owned by Facebook, itself regularly embroiled in controversy about data sharing).

So, what’s all the fuss about? WhatsApp recently announced a change to its terms of service that users had to accept before 8 February or risk being kicked from the app. Included in the new terms was permission to let Facebook and its subsidiaries mine WhatsApp data such as phone numbers, location, and more. The company has stated the update was necessary to allow for businesses to store chats using Facebook’s infrastructure.

Following global backlash and millions of users migrating to other, ostensibly more secure apps such as Signal and Telegram (in the first week of 2021, the former experienced an increase in app downloads of 4,200% – admittedly off a very low base – while Telegram’s app downloads jumped 91% during the same period), WhatsApp backtracked and removed the user-acceptance prompt from the app. According to online sources, the date by which users have to accept the new terms has shifted out to May, although this is yet to be confirmed by WhatsApp.

So, should you stay, or go? Well, scrutiny of the user agreement, plus analysing comments by experts, show private users won’t be unduly affected, with messaging remaining encrypted (i.e., WhatsApp and Facebook can’t see what you write and send to your friends and family). Considering WhatsApp is the most popular chat app globally (and is the dominant form of digital communication in South Africa – research firm Statista found it’s the most-used app locally at 58% of all smartphone users), persuading those in your contact network to migrate to another chat app appears an impossible task … for now. Apparently Signal is the most secure option of the lot, but despite its increase in popularity, it’s still a bit player. Telegram faces the same problem, at least for the foreseeable future. My recommendation? Stick to WhatsApp, but don’t send sensitive data such as credit card details, for example – which should be the case with all chat apps anyway. As for those cute images of your new puppy? I can’t imagine Facebook would be too interested, so share away!