Signal is better than WhatsApp so why aren’t you using it?

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Is the ‘network effect’ of 1.3 billion users on WhatsApp the only reason people stick with it?

Since much of the world is now in lockdown because of COVID-19 (coronavirus) we are now using messaging and video software more than ever. The use of Zoom and Skype has skyrocketed as people work from home and try to keep in contact with friends and family.

I’ve been encouraging friends to try out different software – especially software that respects privacy and personhood. This crisis shouldn’t make surveillance capitalists even stronger.

I’ve been using Signal for a while but I roped my two friends Bill and Tom for a week to give it a proper go. They are both hardcore Whatsapp users and were sceptical at first.

It hasn’t taken long to convince them that Signal is worth keeping on their phone even after all this blows over.

Where Signal beats WhatsAppp

Like WhatsApp, messages on Signal are end-to-end encrypted but you perhaps didn’t know the encryption WhatsApp uses is actually from Signal. Signal is developed by the Open Whisper Foundation – a not-for-profit, and all its funding comes from donations. It’s open-source so it can be independently security and privacy audited – unlike WhatsApp.

It has a handy feature allowing you to automatically delete messages after a set time frame. UK Parliamentarians have been switching to Signal from WhatsApp after several embarrassing group chats were shared during the ongoing Brexit discussions.

Edward Snowden tweet about Twitter - I use Signal every day #notesforFBI (Spoiler: they already know)

Signal only ever asks you for your phone number which OWF hash – have a look at their very short privacy policy. They go out of their way to have as little data about you as possible.

In contrast, WhatsApp trawls as much metadata as it can get about you. Who you’re calling, for how long, your locations and so on.

Here are some examples from Electronic Frontier Foundation of the sort of things companies can know about you from metadata:

  • They know you rang a phone sex line at 2:24 am and spoke for 18 minutes. But they don’t know what you talked about.
  • They know you called the suicide prevention hotline from the Golden Gate Bridge. But the topic of the call remains a secret.
  • They know you got an email from an HIV testing service, then called your doctor, then visited an HIV support group website in the same hour. But they don’t know what was in the email or what you talked about on the phone.
  • They know you received an email from a digital rights activist group with the subject line “Let’s Tell Congress: Stop SESTA/FOSTA” and then called your elected representative immediately after. But the content of those communications remains safe from government intrusion.
  • They know you called a gynecologist, spoke for a half-hour, and then called the local abortion clinic’s number later that day.

“Those who collect or demand access to metadata, such as governments or telecommunications companies, argue that the disclosure (and collection) of metadata is no big deal. Unfortunately, these claims are just not true.”

Why Metadata Matters – Electronic Frontier Foundation

WhatsApp is straight out of the Facebook stable of software and therefore compromised by the Zukerberg and Sandberg obsession of rapid growth at any cost. Zuckerberg promised the EU competition commissioner that WhatsApp data would be kept completely separate from Facebook. This was key to their approval of the merger. Facebook was later fined by the EU for telling lies.

Activists and journalists use Signal and Edward Snowden is a major advocate and he should know as his life has depended on it.

Where WhatsApp beats Signal

One major difference is video chat – Signal will let you video chat with only one person – you can talk to several people at once with WhatsApp. Some of the other features WhatsApp wins on are the variety of stickers you can use. Great.

WhatsApp touts the ability to share your location with people as not only a feature but sensible and worthwhile. If I’m on a call I can just tell you where I am if I choose to. Why would I want to encourage stalking?

WhatsApp Cofounder Brian Acton Gives The Inside Story On #DeleteFacebook And Why He Left $850 Million Behind

Forbes

The main benefit of WhatsApp is the over 1 billion users which will probably include loads of people you know. The network effect is powerful especially if you’ve already left Facebook as I have. By contrast, Signal doesn’t disclose their active users. The best indication is over 10 million downloads on the Google Play store. There is no way to check how many iOS or Desktop computer downloads there have been or how many of these are active users.

Staying with WhatsApp just because your mum uses it doesn’t seem sensible or very cutting edge. You could persuade your mum to start using Signal and sleep better every night. If she can use WhatsApp she won’t have any problem using Signal.

Conclusion

You should use Signal and encourage everyone you know to use it instead of WhatsApp. Simple as.

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James Mullarkey

I write about the web and digital, mediocre sporting performances and places I've been, for this blog and only this blog.