When I posted my message regarding the WhatsApp policy changes, there were five people in my Signal contact list. Today it’s eighteen. Looking at the ongoing media coverage, I have hope that it becomes a persistent trend. I’ve decided to share the following manifesto with all my friends, colleagues and contacts, to bring this important topic to their attention. You’re encouraged to copy, reuse, redistribute it, put your own name on it and reach out to your community!

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Introduction

During recent years we’ve heard increasingly disturbing news, regarding big tech companies and their practices around our personal data. We’ve all heard about crucial role played by social networks in the Cambridge Analytica scandal and its decisive impact on the outcome of the 2016 US presidential elections. We’ve heard about the wave of misinformation during Brexit campaign, facilitated by social networks profiting massively from political advertising. Four years long we’ve been waking up to an endless stream of lies, slander and falsehoods dispatched on behalf of a soon-to-be-former-president, all mercilessly monetized by the Big Tech under the guise of freedom of speech. We’ve witnessed disturbing radicalization of public discourse, leading to hatred, violence and blood on streets. Coldly designed algorithms were unleashed to incite the worst emotions in us. All for more clicks and more ad revenue. We’re the product, we’re the profit, we’re the target.

When I’ve signed up with WhatsApp many years ago, it was an independent company with admirable respect for privacy. I’ve signed off Facebook already in 2014 and never looked back - call it prescience. When Facebook bought WhatsApp, I began to worry. As a citizen of the European Union I do enjoy more rights and protections. But I was concerned that these regulations will be slowly and gradually challenged and tested. Call it slowly boiling the frog. Little by little, step by step, by ongoing legal and technical changes here and there.

The Frog is Boiling

Unfortunately for the frog, the water has reached the boiling point.

Few days ago WhatsApp, currently owned by Facebook, announced changes to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy that have worsened things again. Fencing off data between WhatsApp and Facebook, required by European authorities as condition for merger, is being drastically weakened again.

The EU Data Protection Commissioner has initiated a review process for these changes. Unfortunately, experiences with previous breaches of privacy regulations teach us that it will be a prolonged process taking years to resolve. Even then, all WhatsApp users outside EU juristidiction - more than a billion users - will remain exposed to these abusive practices.

Why is it important

All our meta-data will now be shared with Facebook for whatever it deems as “business purposes”. This includes my entire contact list, who I talk to, how often, when I use the application, at which location etc. All this can be used by Facebook to build my “shadow” profile, even if I am not a registered Facebook user. It serves to help the company draw a more complete picture of social networks, who’s connected to who and how. It helps create more accurate personal profiles of users, useful for targeted business and political advertising. It can be used to influence our behavior without us even knowing - when you use Facebook, its opaque algorithms choose the content and advertising you see, based on all this collected information.

If you don’t opt in to this next big update (though chances are that you already have, not knowing what you’re agreeing to), you will no longer be allowed to use WhatsApp.

WhatsApp gives an ultimatum: share your data with Facebook or stop using the application.

If you asked a person why they use WhatsApp, they’d tell you it’s because everyone else does. It’s convenient, without question. But this argument is circular and self perpetuating: everyone is using WhatsApp because everyone is using it. This creates a problem: no one will use an alternative because they won’t find their friends and family using the alternative.

So we choose to ignore the malpractices, and close our eyes on the quality and advantages of the available alternatives.

Obviously this is great for Facebook/WhatsApp. It means that Facebook can do almost anything they want and you’ll still keep using it, because you don’t want to be inconvenienced.

What’s Next

To me the solution seems to be this: keep WhatsApp for whatever is necessary, but start using an alternative. Keep recommending it to friends, family members and other contacts. Don’t be afraid of speaking out your worries, like I’m doing here. This is no longer a fringe paranoia. Consciously or not, the Big Tech in its quest for endless profit destroys the fabric of our societies. As more and more of our lives happen online, data protection and privacy are simply critical.

I’m now in the process of moving over to Signal Messenger, which is a much more secure and privacy aware alternative, fully open source on top of that. You can even run your own communication server if you wish so. It looks and feels similar to WhatsApp and has the same functionality. Signal does not collect and store any of your data. The Signal Foundation is a non-profit, and they state that their goal is “to develop open source privacy technology that protects free expression and enables secure global communication.”

https://signal.org/blog/signal-foundation/

If anyone else shares these concerns I would very much welcome our chats moving to Signal. Signal is super easy to use and very similar to WhatsApp. Additionally, it has fantastic client apps for desktop PC, supported on Linux, MacOS and Microsoft Windows. You can be up and running in under 2 minutes if you download it from the App Store.

Install from Google play store: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.thoughtcrime.securesms

Install from Apple store: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/signal-private-messenger/id874139669

Install from Signal website: https://signal.org/install

Thank you!

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