While the business world has delved into the implications of the Whatsapp Facebook deal, end users have let their feelings be known quite clearly: privacy is a concern. And nowhere else is it more evident than in Germany, where Whatsapp users have abandoned the service in favour of a more privacy-aware messaging app, Threema.
Threema, run by a startup, says that it saw its user base double to 400,000 within 24 hours of news of the Whatsapp-Facebook deal breaking – and that’s pretty impressive for a premium app that attracts a R15.99 price tag. If people are abandoning a free service for one they have to pay for, there’s clearly a good reason. In this case, it’s the fact that Threema offers encrypted communications: much like Apple’s iMessage, the data between two users cannot be read by a third party.
The Threema website even touts the security of the service, pointing out that it’s impossible to read users’ messages even from its own service.
Despite Facebook’s promises that Whatsapp would remain a separate entity in its portfolio, users clearly don’t trust Zuckerberg and co. One columnist on The Register even points out that the deal is probably not about paying for Whatsapp itself, but for the user data associated with it. It’s worth remembering that Whatsapp has access to your phonebook, regardless of the phone platform you use, and now that Facebook owns it… well, you can see where this is going.
Facebook’s also got to fight off the stigma that it isn’t in cahoots with the American government – especially after last year’s revelations about the CIA’s PRISM programme. Even if it isn’t giving that data directly to the US government, the authorities in the US can simply serve an order to Facebook to get user data.
The point of encrypted services like Threema – and the many others that will no doubt follow – is that even if there were any user data to hand over, it would all be useless to the third party. While there are a number of free alternatives to Whatsapp, these pay-for-privacy apps could well start a new trend, as users look at keeping what’s theirs rightfully private.