Calling time on WhatsApp & Signal’s appeal – Privacy IRL with Spyros, UK

–– 23 Jan 2021

As part of our series of interviews with people outside the tech world – In Real Life – we learned how Spyros in London used group messaging to keep in touch despite COVID, and how concerns about privacy and data sharing have led to a change in behavior…

Q: How long have you been using WhatsApp? (WA)

I can’t really remember! I’ve been on it several years, but much more so now since COVID. I’ve created different family groups, plus friends, neighbors, and even other men on my street, and it’s been very convenient.

WA got me into video calling for the first time because you press once and it rings the whole group which is very useful.

I’m 68 and of the pre-computer generation, but like technology and ‘toys’ and went through word processing, emails and this fitted how I live now, in lockdown – before, I wasn’t a big user as most of my friends weren’t on it.

Q: How did you learn about the WA news which caused your concern?

I’m aware my data, through emails and services from Google, Microsoft and others are already out there being shared and sold.

I knew WA was the only service with full encryption for messages, and when Facebook bought them I read articles saying it was the ‘end’ of WA’s privacy. Then WA became ubiquitous, mainly because of convenience.

The factors which changed my mind on WA now happened over about 48 hours – one of the groups of men in the street sent a message he was leaving WA and moving to Signal and giving his details if anyone wanted to join him there.

This led me to investigate Signal, and I then got a notification for a tech video on Signal, and how it was created by one of the founders of WA (Brian Acton). What struck me is it uses the same security protocols but no-one, not even Signal has your data, and the way they make money is through

Then my brother-in-law who works advising charities informs me all his clients are moving over to Signal. Finally, my best tells me he will only use Signal now. All these things happen at the same time as I read in the press that people are ‘fed up’ with WA and moving to Signal.

Q: How is Signal different from WA?

When I created a Signal account, I found all the people I already mentioned are there, plus other friends and family members. It’s been easy to use and familiar with what I was doing on WA, which I still use with certain people and for functions like attaching files – I’m working that out on Signal.

The problem is that only about 10% of my total contacts are using Signal right now, so it feels like early days. I don’t believe all this is the result of PR spin from Signal and read they are supported by donations, so it feels like there has been a real change among independent sources who have decided it’s ‘flavor of the month’.

I haven’t closed my WA account because it’s convenient, but my wife who has a group of old school friends in Argentina is going through a similar process.

Q: If you trust Signal with your privacy, would you donate your data or insights? Would you sell your data?

The big problem I see with Google, Amazon, and Facebook is they have all this data that they got for free, and without my permission. I don’t have anything to hide, and I’m sure people will say there are terms and conditions, but nobody reads 15 pages of small print.

I have noticed a very good move only from the banks and Paypal so far, where they summarise changes in data use and send that to me – I still press ‘accept’ like everybody else, but at least I have an idea of what’s happening!

Right now, I’d be very happy to donate to Signal, to keep them afloat and see what happens. However, I reckon when they get to a billion users someone will probably buy them just like what happened with WA, and the game will change again.

If Signal could guarantee they only give data to worthy causes, I would be happy as charities have things tough right now.

I also read that data is now worth more than gold, and at the end of the day, it’s my property. If they were also willing to pay me ‘x’ amount each year, not just one-off for use of my data, I’d be interested.

Q: Do you think WA is doing anything illegal?

(Laughs) It depends! I’m sure in legal terms, they’re not. But there is some morality attached to it:

No-one twisted my arm to get my data – I wanted to play with the latest tech. But that’s the source of all the billions they’re got, so at some point or other, they need to think about the morality of me and others not seeing anything. It’s a bit like the fact no-one compensates the planet for the environmental cost of all the gold that’s mined…

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