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WhatsApp panics as users flee to rivals in privacy boycott

WhatsApp this week reassured users about privacy at the Facebook-owned messaging service as people flocked to rivals Telegram and Signal after a tweak to its terms.

There was “a lot of misinformation” about an update to terms of service regarding an option to use WhatsApp to message businesses, Facebook executive Adam Mosseri, who heads Instagram, tweeted.

WhatsApp’s new terms sparked criticism, as users outside Europe who do not accept the new conditions before 8 February will be cut off from the messaging app. 

“The policy update does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way,” Mosseri said.

The update regards how merchants using WhatsApp to chat with customers can share data with Facebook, which could use the information for targeting ads, according to the social network.

“We can’t see your private messages or hear your calls, and neither can Facebook,” WhatsApp said in a blog post. “We don’t keep logs of who everyone is messaging or calling. We can’t see your shared location and neither can Facebook.”

Location data, together with message contents, is encrypted end-to-end, according to WhatsApp.

“We’re giving businesses the option to use secure hosting services from Facebook to manage WhatsApp chats with their customers, answer questions, and send helpful information like purchase receipts,” WhatsApp said in the post.

“Whether you communicate with a business by phone, email, or WhatsApp, it can see what you’re saying and may use that information for its marketing purposes, which may include advertising on Facebook.”

Encrypted messaging app Telegram has seen user ranks surge on the heels of the WhatsApp service terms announcement, said its founder Pavel Durov. 

Durov, 36, said on his Telegram channel that the app had more than 500-million monthly active users in the first weeks of January and “25-million new users joined Telegram in the last 72 hours alone.”

WhatsApp boasts more than two billion users.

“People no longer want to exchange their privacy for free services,” Durov said, without directly referring to the rival app.

Encrypted messaging app Signal has also seen a massive surge in demand, helped by a tweeted recommendation by Elon Musk.

WhatsApp’s biggest market, with some 400-million users, is in India where Telegram and Signal gained about four million subscribers between them last week, financial daily Mint reported.

Telegram is a popular social media platform in several countries, particularly in the former Soviet Union and Iran, and is used for private communications and sharing information and news.

Durov said Telegram has become a “refuge” for those seeking a private and secure communications platform and assured new users that his team “takes this responsibility very seriously”.

Telegram refuses to co-operate with authorities and hand over encryption keys, which resulted in its ban in several countries. 

Last year, Russia announced that it would lift its ban on the messenger app after more than two years of unsuccessful attempts to block it.

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