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What’s the deal?

WhatsApp is now reserving the right to share data it collects about you with the broader Facebook network, which includes Instagram, regardless of whether you have accounts or profiles there. Much of the policy, which is about monetising WhatsApp, is broadly in line with what came before, but it now states clearly that “WhatsApp receives information from, and shares information with, the other Facebook companies. We may use the information we receive from them, and they may use the information we share with them, to help operate” and market services. The option to share data with Facebook has existed for years, but it was just that: optional. From 8 February it becomes mandatory.

Even though your conversations are encrypted end-to-end, meaning not even WhatsApp itself can access them, by using WhatsApp you may be sharing with it your contacts list, location, financial information and usage data, as well as your phone’s unique identifier, among other types of so-called metadata. These may be linked to your identity, according to WhatsApp on its listing in Apple’s App Store, and it’s this data the privacy policy stipulates must now be agreed can be shared with Facebook.

It says it needs it to help operate and improve its offerings. More broadly, almost all of the US$21.5-billion in revenue Facebook generated in its third quarter of 2020 came from ads, and there are none in WhatsApp. The company wants to be able to serve more targeted ads to people on Facebook and Instagram by also knowing their usage habits on WhatsApp, and let businesses take payments in WhatsApp for items that, for instance, were clicked on in Instagram ads.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s media office and his country’s defence ministry said they’re dropping WhatsApp. Technology billionaire Elon Musk endorsed rival app Signal to his 42 million Twitter followers. The registration service for Signal crashed after an influx of new users overwhelmed its servers. On 10 January, it tweeted: “We continue to shatter traffic records and add capacity as more and more people come to terms with how much they dislike Facebook’s new terms.” — Reported by Nate Lanxon, (c) 2020 Bloomberg LP

As blind users, who are primarily relying on screen reading technology and magnification, accessibility is a key consideration when selecting a messaging application.

There are quite a number of messaging apps out there however, I am going to focus on two alternatives to Whatsapp for now.

Telegram

Telegram is a company run by the Russian brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov, famous for founding the Russian alternative to Facebook, VKontakte. After the Kremlin began to take stricter control over their internet service and Pavel Durov was forced to leave the country, the brothers developed Telegram. Their WhatsApp alternative developed even further: the service is cloud-based, meaning that Telegram users can access their messages and content on a variety of mobile devices as well as on their computer. A further advantage is the limitless, large-scale file sharing. WhatsApp, on the other hand, puts limits on the amount of data and file size that you can receive and send, based on the capacity of your device – usually a smartphone.

Telegram is considered a very secure application. The developers offer two different forms of encryption for users: for all private and group chats, there’s a server-client encryption, which encrypts messages on the way from sender to server and from server to recipient. But Telegram itself does have access to the content of chats on the server, and so it could theoretically forward this information on to external sources. In what are known as secret chats, Telegram offers an end-to-end encryption,which ensures that only the sender and the recipient can read a message. Telegram itself has no access to this content, which means that it’s also impossible for the data to be forwarded or accessed by third parties or security services.

Messages that are sent with an end-to-end encryption don’t get stored on the Telegram cloud and so can only be opened and read on the device they were initially sent from or first received on. There’s also a setting for the secret chats mode that ensures the message will delete itself after a certain time. The message and/or content sent also can’t be copied from the chat or forwarded to anyone else, and if the sender chooses to delete it, then it will also be deleted from the recipient’s device.

It’s important to mention that the latest version of WhatsApp now also offers end-to-end encryption for all messages. Since this type of encryption isn’t possible for cloud-based content, Telegram makes a compromise here in data protection for greater user-friendliness. But many users who have switched to Telegram in recent months haven’t done so looking for higher levels of encryption: they’ve done so because Telegram has nothing to do with Facebook.

However, Telegram also doesn’t promise that the company will always operate under the same data protection guidelines or that it’ll never be sold. This has created some concerns about the lack of clarity over the corporate structure of this WhatsApp alternative. For users who value data protection above comfort, it’s worth finding another alternative to WhatsApp.

If you are partially sighted, i.e. using magnification only, you should not have much difficulty using Telegram on your mobile device, be it Android or iOS.

However, if you are using Apple’s VoiceOver on an iOS device, you should install an additional or alternative app like Bright Guide to access all Telegram features.

What I like

✔ No advertisements
✔ Open source
✔ Cloud-based, accessible from a variety of different devices
✔ Option to delete content for the user

What I don’t like

✘ Not much transparency over the company itself
✘ Stores meta data
✘ Cloud may affect privacy
✘ Doesn’t play very nice with VoiceOver on Apple’s mobile devices

Telegram can be downloaded for Android, iOS, Linux, Mac, web and Windows by visiting the official telegram page.

Signal

Signal is, like many WhatsApp alternatives, relatively unknown, and its developers even more so. The Signal creators’ Open Whisper Systems have delivered end-to-end encryption software with open source code and have been used by WhatsApp, Telegram, and more, to develop their own encryption. Elon Musk and Edward Snowden uses Signal, and the team around cryptographer Moxie Marlinspike, the founder of Open Whisper Systems, enjoys an excellent reputation among IT security experts. Open Whisper Systems is financed entirely by scholarship grants and donations, so it doesn’t rely on any advertising.

As might be expected from the developers of the most famous encryption technology available for messengers, security is at the forefront of everything Signal does. Both private and group chats are secured with end-to-end encryption, and telephone numbers are transmitted anonymously (“hashed”) to the server.

But, on the other hand, the user is required to share their contact list with Signal during the registration process. This is optional on WhatsApp, though it’s important to note that WhatsApp becomes very difficult to use without sharing your contact list with it, as you can’t add telephone numbers using the keypad. Signal stores very little meta data, and no information about who is communicating with whom. The only thing that the app stores is whether someone is using the service or not.

For security reasons, Signal offers no backup function, unlike many other WhatsApp alternatives. And while some of the alternatives to WhatsApp allows for the export of chats on all operating systems, Signal only offers an export function for Android. This means it is possible to back up content manually to another device, but this takes significantly longer and requires much more effort than a typical backup. The advantage is that the chance of the backup landing in the wrong hands is a lot slimmer.

Signal works really well on both Android and iOS with both magnification and Screen readers. The Windows application also works really well with the latest version of NVDA. I have not been able to test it with Jaws for Windows, as of this writing.

What I like

✔ Open source
✔ Self-destroying messages
✔ PIN lock feature
✔ Encrypted phone calls possible
✔ Stores very little meta data

What I don’t like

✘ Comparatively few users
✘ No backup function

You can get more information on Signal by visiting Signal’s home on the web.

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