Why Elon Musk won't drive more Canadians to use Signal as WhatsApp changes policy

Shruti Shekar
·Telecom & Tech Reporter
·5-min read
The WhatsApp messaging application is seen on a phone screen August 3, 2017.   REUTERS/Thomas White
WhatsApp is changing its policy rules and now requiring customers to share data with Facebook. (Credit: Reuters)

In the long term, Canadian WhatsApp users are unlikely to take heed of Elon Musk’s suggestion to switch over to messaging app Signal, following WhatsApp’s new privacy policy announcement, experts say.

Taking over Jeff Bezos to become the richest man in the world, Musk tweeted “Use Signal” shortly after Facebook-owned WhatsApp announced changes Thursday to its privacy policy that require data sharing with its parent company.

Carmi Levy, a tech expert and director at Info-Tech Research Group, said in an interview that a tweet from one of the “world’s recognizable business magnates” will spike interest in alternative messaging-app services like Signal, but that the interest will be short-lived.

“Throughout the social media era, there have been a number of instances where recommendations from high-profile celebrities have resulted in temporary influxes of downloads and new registrations for upstart apps and services,” he said.

“As long as WhatsApp continues to deliver what its mainstream users expect, they’ll largely stick with it. Musk’s Tweet will doubtless drive short-term growth, largely among more tech-savvy users who are more concerned about security. But mom and dad will likely stay with WhatsApp for the foreseeable future.”

The new WhatsApp policy changes will go into effect on Feb. 8. The company indicated in its latest update that “if you don’t provide us with this information, you will not be able to create an account to use our services.”

Users’ data that will now be shared with Facebook include account registration information (such as your phone number), transaction data, service-related information, and information on how you interact with others (including businesses) when using the service, WhatsApp said.

Other information that will be shared also includes mobile device information and your IP address.

Sumit Bhatia, a cybersecurity expert and director of communications and knowledge mobilization with Ryerson University's Cybersecure Catalyst, said in an interview that the policy changes provide Facebook with the ability to further build out user profiles.

“There’s no indication that WhatsApp will have advertising, but it certainly means that the information that Facebook collects from WhatsApp will lead further into a more sophisticated type of advertising on other Facebook platforms,” he said.

Levy however says that it is very likely that ads will appear on WhatsApp.

“WhatsApp will eventually be overrun with ads in much the same way as Facebook and Instagram. It will become increasingly algorithmically driven. What you see will be not so much on who you connect with, but it’ll be based on what the algorithm wants you to see, based of course on your behaviours,” he said.

“You will have less and less control over that platform and eventually you will just be a cog in Facebook’s universe.”

A WhatsApp spokesperson that these policies are changes announced in October. Those changes were done to make it “easier for people to both make a purchase and get help from a business directly on WhatsApp.”

“To further increase transparency, we updated the privacy policy to describe that going forward businesses can choose to receive secure hosting services from our parent company Facebook to help manage their communications with their customers on WhatsApp,” they said.

“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. WhatsApp remains deeply committed to protecting people’s 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.”

Bhatia said that it wasn’t uncommon for tech companies to stop a service if its users didn’t agree to new changes.

“For instance, it happened when Snapchat changed its policy a few years ago and said we can always save all your data and it doesn’t just magically disappear, and people continue to use them,” he said.

He added that while the current user base is not going to be impacted dramatically, the growth trajectory for adopting other services will begin to grow.

“The number of new users and adoption rates will definitely change,” he said.

“[The app] is deeply integrated within the social messaging ecosystem, especially when it comes to a place like Canada where a large population is connected to the home and their families via this.”

Facebook directly responding to federal lawsuit

In early December, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and 48 states and territories filed a lawsuit in part accusing Facebook of acquiring companies (like Instagram and WhatsApp) in order to monopolize social networking and squash competition. The lawsuit also asks that Facebook split Instagram and Whatsapp, and to seek government approval for any future mergers.

Facebook at the time responded saying the FTC had approved the company’s purchase of Instagram and WhatsApp and denied all allegations.

Levy said the new WhatsApp policy changes effectively will make it impossible for WhatsApp to be separated from Facebook.

“That’s going to form the basis of [Facebook’s] argument when they get in front of the court,” he said. “They are expected to claim that technologically it is impossible to separate all of these pieces of the Facebook empire without significantly upsetting customers who rely on these tools.”

Levy said that the move is a “preemptive strike to protect their interests.”