Clear signal: Indian startups make mega move from Facebook’s WhatsApp to Signal amid data privacy row

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Updated: January 18, 2021 12:24 PM

Large startups have already taken sides. For instance, PhonePe has already moved over 1,000 employees to Signal while Paytm too "should move on to Signal".

The feature was spotted last week in the beta version of Signal app and the company has now introduced it officially for the stable version of the app.

There’s a claim digital consumers must have stumbled upon quite a few times in recent history — Data is the new oil. It is to the digital economy what oil is to the industrial economy and much like energy, which is extracted from the mighty oil, information comes from the mighty data. While the adage might be true in some circumstances, particularly in the application of deep technologies such as artificial intelligence, and machine learning, or to keep the proverbial digital world ‘connected’, but unlike data sharing and distribution, oil extraction doesn’t risk its source in any known way. Data sharing, not mining, does risks digital privacy and the safety of individuals and businesses. That’s what the Facebook-owned WhatsApp’s rival Signal doesn’t intend to do, something that the former has allegedly been engaged in.

Ever since the uproar caused due to WhatsApp asking users to allegedly share their data with Facebook recently, not just large enterprises but startups too have either already moved to Signal or experimenting with it. WhatsApp had told its more than 2 billion customers globally recently that they would have to agree to share certain information such as contact number with Facebook to continue using its service that will come into effect in February.

“Battery level, signal strength, app version, browser information, mobile network, connection information (including phone number, mobile operator or ISP), language and time zone, IP address, device operations information, and identifiers (including identifiers unique to Facebook Company Products associated with the same device or account),” is the set of information that is to be allegedly shared with Facebook. This certainly hasn’t gone down well with its customers who are tired of being in a fix over their data being shared with others or not. The surety has never been there.

“We have switched to Signal and would be moving our office groups to it owing to the recent privacy changes in WhatsApp. These new policies threaten the data security and may comprise company secrets of a business in future, for individuals there is a possibility that we may start getting targeted advertisement based on our chat topics and discussions,” Amit Singh, CEO of IoT-based telecom service provider Teliolabs told Financial Express Online. Nearly all of its over 100 employees have made the switch.

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Similarly, AI-based job portal Vasitum has moved on to Signal. “While this will cause discomfort to the users, this will also be a big huddle for the employers who rely on WhatsApp for their recruitment related discussions. Hence, at Vasitum not only our core team of nine members has moved to Signal for our communications but our Product team is also working on possibilities of changing our offering from ‘WhatsApp integration’ to ‘Signal integration,” Vikram Wadhawan, Founder & CEO, Vasitum told Financial Express Online.

Thrust Classroom, which is still in its very early stages of business, has a small team of 12 people that has also decided to switch to Signal. WhatsApp stores the IP address and other user information on the server, while Signal only stores phone number, according to Piyush Shukla, Co-founder, Thrust Classroom.

Signal, Telegram, and WhatsApp were the overall first, eighth, and 16th top free apps on Google Play Store while on Apple app store, they were placed at first, second, and third position respectively, according to SensorTower’s real-time information for the India market. Moreover, according to a recent survey of more than 1.8 lakh app users by Tiger Global backed English news app Inshorts, 47 per cent of respondents said they would not accept the policy and will look for WhatsApp’s alternatives of the messaging app.

Businesses also don’t want to risk their data in any manner that might cost them their clients or customers. Companies like MTAP Technologies, which offers location-based transportation services to businesses, is in fact also be reviewing Signal periodically for any data leakage. “Although WhatsApp isn’t our main channel for communication, we will definitely be shifting our ground-level implementation groups to Signal which will be reviewed by independent experts every two months to verify privacy and security,” Srinivas Chitturi, Co-founder and CTO, MTAP Technologies told Financial Express Online. Its implementation team trains the company’s staff on the usage of the product, installation of hardware in cars and buses. MTAP’s 50 out of 100 employees from this team would be shifting to Signal, to begin with.

Likewise, on-demand freight booking and hiring startup Shift Freight is planning to move its over 60-member team to Signal soon amid WhatsApp’s privacy-related concerns. “Also, we have a customer base of more than 1 lakh and customer data protection is our top priority. We cannot afford to compromise with our customers’ data,” Avinash Raghav, Co-Founder, Shift Freight told Financial Express Online.

However, for many, shifting to a completely new app right away or in the future is perhaps not on the cards. For instance, for Cred’s Kunal Shah, “Trying to leave WhatsApp is as futile as adopting a new language to communicate between same folks. Feels cool for first 7 days like first week of a new year at the gym,” he tweeted on Sunday. For him, “Signal or Telegram won’t win unless it’s Delta 4 to WhatsApp. Network effects is like a religion. Most people like to stay in what they were born in. Social media has shelf life as people like to move to cooler places but messengers are not a product to display status.”

Raghav Kansal, who runs digital advertising and analytics firm ET Medialabs, somewhat echoes that thought. “We may switch at a later stage if we see that a majority of users have done that because these apps tend to have a strong network effect and shifting won’t help if all the people in the network do not do that. I have been a Signal user for quite some time now and have been using it as a secondary app.”

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Large startups such as PhonePe and Paytm have already taken sides. For instance, PhonePe has already moved over 1,000 employees to Signal. In response to Shah’s tweet, PhonePe’s Sameer Nigam, who had most of his work contacts on Signal too, tweeted: “This time is diff. Product-wise, Signal has arrived! Moved 1000+ @PhonePe-rs to Signal. Recreated all my work groups. Moved my family groups. Seamlessly. Zero switching cost.” Similarly, Paytm’s Vijay Shekhar Sharma had tweeted on Monday about possibly moving to the new app. “They say, market has power. We are the largest market. Here in India WhatsApp / Facebook are abusing their monopoly & taking away millions of users’ privacy for granted. We should move on to @signalapp NOW.”

However, WhatsApp had quickly scrambled into damage control mode answering “some of the rumors going around” with regards to its privacy policy updates. The company emphasized that the policy update “does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way,” and that the updates are related to “messaging a business on WhatsApp, which is optional,” it said in a note. The company had, in an infographic, claimed that neither WhatsApp nor Facebook can see messages, or hear calls and cannot see the shared location and that the chat app doesn’t keep logs of who calls or messages to a user. In addition, it said that WhatsApp doesn’t share user contacts with Facebook and that WhatsApp Groups remain private while the user can download his/her data.

Meanwhile, this is probably the best time for Signal to grow like never before by capitalising on the data privacy row that is providing great tail winds to the company. “Facebook is probably more comfortable selling ads than buying them, but they’ll do what they have to do in order to be the top result when some people search for ‘Signal’ in the App Store. P.S. There will never be ads in Signal, because your data belongs in your hands not ours,” the company had tweeted recently.

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