Leaving WhatsApp for Telegram: the difference is why

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26 February, 2014

After learning that messaging service WhatsApp has been taken over by Facebook, millions of users around the world have closed their account to join alternative services. The main concern of these WhatsApp users is privacy. Many people fear Facebook will use and exploit the personal details of WhatsApp user accounts in connection with data from the social network. The privacy scare has escalated to the point where Facebook-boss Mark Zuckerberg himself had to comment on this issue. Mr. Zuckerberg has promised WhatsApp users that the messaging service will remain a stand-alone company and that Facebook Inc. will not integrate the service witch the social network. He added that WhatsApp will remain free from advertising.

In the Netherlands and Germany, the majority of WhatsApp “privacy refugees” shift to Telegram Messenger, a messaging app for iOS and Android that is quite similar to WhatsApp. After word of Facebook buying WhatsApp came out, Telegram welcomed some 500,000 new users within a few days. Telegram is now the most popular iOS-app in the Netherlands and Germany.

However, the question is whether Telegram is indeed a better option in terms of user privacy. Will our personal data be safer in the hands of Telegram Messenger? Telegram  is developed by Nikolai and Pawel Durov, who also run VK. VK was formerly known as vKontakte and is the largest social network of the Russian speaking world. VK has approximately 245 million users, predominantly in Russia, Eastern Europe and Kazakhstan. This week, Telegram announced that they are now the number 1 app in eight new countries: Chile, Mexico, Netherlands, Ghana, Germany, Spain, Nicaragua and Paraguay.
When looking at the functionality of Telegram, it is similar to WhatsApp, however the app is said to be working faster, more secure and free of charge.

Interestingly, Telegram is presented as a non-profit organisation that relies on fundraising and donations. Furthermore,  the messaging service is said to be operating completely separate from VK and does not display ads. Comparisons with Facebook are not just random guesses. The main difference seems to be that VK and Telegram have no privacy track record  in North-West Europe yet.

Privacy concerns among WhatsApp users are certainly not just an emotional over-reaction. WhatsApp does not only collect phone number of its users, but they currently posess the telephone details of millions of people that are not associated with the service at all. This is because WhatsApp copies it’s users telephone directory. By agreeing with the user terms, every user allows WhatsApp this favor. The Dutch Data Protection Authority has announced that this practice is a violation of Dutch data protection law, and has notified WhatsApp that they will start investigating this case.

Personal data is a very valuable commodity, especially in a marketing context. This is of course a hidden treasure for companies that offer their services (almost) free of charge. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Or free vodka.

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