In light of a change to its terms of service, the popular messaging service WhatsApp lost millions of its users this week, who have migrated to other apps such as Signal and Telegram, both of which claim to offer better privacy. What are the risks involved in using such apps, and how can we mitigate them?

WhatsApp’s recent publication of a new privacy policy had many of us revisiting what we were comfortable with from a data privacy perspective. The reality of WhatsApp’s new policy is that it only affects how you might interact with businesses, does not mandate new data collection, nor affect the content of your chats.

While many of us might consider switching to alternative services, the effects of where large groups of your friend circle or colleagues exist means that a clean break might be difficult to implement. Indeed, convincing a large group of differing ages and digital awareness might feel almost impossible.

What we can do is consider our own approach to data privacy, which can fall into three broad categories: what we share, how we share, and the tools we use.

If we consider first what we share, we should ask ourselves the following questions:

  • When sharing our data with companies, do we need to share all of the information asked for?
  • When sharing content or thoughts with others, do we trust them or the system we use to keep that information secure?
  • Ultimately, would we mind if the information we shared with companies and products we use as well as with friends and contacts was made public?

When considering what we share with companies, it becomes critical to understand the implications. Although there is a necessity for companies to meet data standards, as we have seen, many succumb to the nefarious tactics of hackers. It therefore becomes our responsibility as consumers of Internet services to think twice about the data we give away. More importantly, it becomes especially important to understand the rights that we give to companies who look after data, especially when their service is free. We have become over complacent in signing up for free trials of products or free services on the Internet without thinking about what we give up when we sign up. We wouldn’t do it in the physical world, so why don’t we think twice about it online?

The WhatsApp policy change has been misrepresented on social media, but it has been an overdue eye opener for what we consider as appropriate use of our data. The question will remain: What are we prepared to do about it? Will we stop using services like WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and other social platforms? Will we, in fact, be able to?

Some pointers to think about when considering your own online privacy:

  1. Do a digital audit of services and apps that you use and don’t use. If you no longer use the service, sign out of all communications and ask the companies to remove your data.
  2. Think carefully about what you share on social media chat groups or other networks and whether you would be comfortable for that content to be presented to a wider audience.
  3. Understand that every visit to a website creates a digital footprint that could be accessed by advertisers.
  4. To protect your privacy, use tools to mask your usage such as a VPN (Virtual Private Network) and consider using a password manager to generate and manage different passwords across different sites.

Privacy should be a right that we each need to defend as we become ever more reliant on Internet and digital services. We need to stay vigilant and savvy to ensure our right to privacy as technology continues to evolve.