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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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:
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.