Why Meta’s WhatsApp is better for privacy than Apple’s messaging app

    I am a big Apple fan. I think the company makes some of the best gadgets on the market, delivers some of the best digital services and has a leadership team that is unmatched in the tech industry. The company has had its missteps, of course, and there always are room for improvementbut overall Apple is one of the rare bright spots in Big Tech.

    The company’s legendary stance on privacy is a big reason why it excels. Without a doubt, Apple is at the forefront of giving users control over who can access their data and how it is used. Of course, it’s economically viable for Apple to do this because the company’s revenue doesn’t depend on monetizing consumer data. The fact that Apple could monetizing consumer data (making billions more every quarter) but choosing not to does tells me that their privacy policy is about more than just good marketing.

    Years before Apple began to openly advertise its privacy strengths, the company was already leading the way. The company’s messaging platform, formerly known as iMessage, but now called Apple Messages or Messages for short, was one of the first major messaging platforms to offer standard end-to-end encryption.

    Back then, end-to-end encryption was something only techies got excited about. Today, end-to-end encryption is something everyone on the planet should care about. That’s because messaging apps are now the main way we communicate with others, and governments — some good and some not so good — are more interested in that communication than ever.

    Of course, end-to-end encryption doesn’t just keep your thoughts out of the hands of nefarious nation-states; it also occurs hackers and other bad actors to compromise your messages if they successfully hack Apple.

    But one thing has always bothered me about Apple’s Messages: Apple has the means to read everything you send and receive. That’s because while Apple Messages are end-to-end encrypted in transit and on the sender’s and recipient’s devices, if the user backs up their Apple Messages to iCloud (as almost all of them do), their messages are not stored end-to-end encrypted in their iCloud backup. Instead, Apple has the keys to unlock your messages. And that has far-reaching consequences for the privacy of the company’s users.

    Since Apple Messages users’ messages are not stored end-to-end encrypted in their iCloud backup, Apple can access every message a user has ever received or sent, along with any government who can give Apple a court order to hand over the user’s iCloud backup, and any hacker who can compromise Apple’s keys. If you store your Messages in your iCloud backup, the end-to-end encryption that Apple’s Messages provides is essentially worthless, giving users a false sense of security.

    While this may not bother most people, the lack of end-to-end encryption for iCloud message backups can have serious consequences for activists and journalists in certain countries. It is also not great for women in certain states who may be posts about what their abortion options are.

    This brings me to Meta (aka Facebook). I am not a fan of the company at all. Facebook has been reckless with users’ personal information, and so have its social media platforms terrible for the mental health of the users. But a year ago, one of Meta’s flagship products, WhatsApp, did something that shocked me: It made its messaging platform more private and secure than anything Apple offers.

    Not only personal messages on WhatsApp are end-to-end encrypted (although a message to a company accessible to different people in the company)but a user’s entire WhatsApp iCloud backup can now also be end-to-end encrypted. That means if a nefarious state issues a court order to Apple to hand over a user’s iCloud backup, that state can read the user’s Apple messages, but not their WhatsApp messages. That means Meta’s WhatsAp – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – is now a more private and secure option for iPhone users than Apple’s own messaging app.

    This is bad news for Apple, and I think maybe that’s what Facebook meant. Apple has seriously hurt Meta with one of its most recent iOS privacy improvements, which lets users tell the apps they use not to share their data with third-party apps. The move has cost Meta billions in quarterly ad revenue and tens of billions in market cap.

    You can bet Meta would have loved to have hit back. But how? Meta and Apple don’t compete on many important fronts (although AR may be an exception in the future). Messaging is one of the few arenas where they overlap.

    In the United States, Apple’s Messages is one of the most popular messaging platforms and it is a major reason consumers buy and hold iPhones. If Meta can make WhatsApp more attractive in America (as it does elsewhere in the world), consumers will have one less reason to stick with an iPhone the next time they’re in the market to upgrade their device. Once you’ve switched your messaging app from Apple’s, it’s not that hard to switch platforms from iOS to Android.

    If Apple’s messaging platform were to lose its dominance in America, it could negatively impact iPhone sales for years to come. Apple knows. Meta knows. Mark Zuckerberg clearly knows.

    Why hasn’t Apple enabled end-to-end encryption when it comes to messages backed up to iCloud? The company did not respond to my request for comment. In the past, Apple executives have told me that the reason Messages isn’t end-to-end encrypted in iCloud backups is that Apple can restore a user’s messages if a user forgets their password. That’s for sure a reason – it’s just not very satisfying. After all, why can’t Apple users download the choice of end-to-end encryption of their Messages backup? Can’t a user risk losing access to his messages if he forgets his password?

    After Meta introduced end-to-end encrypted iCloud backups for WhatsApp messages last year, I was sure Apple would do the same by the time iOS 16 came out; that Apple wouldn’t be willing to let Meta, of all companies, steal its privacy crown.

    I was wrong.

    Regardless of Apple’s reasoning, until the company stores a user’s Messages in an end-to-end encrypted form in their iCloud backup, people who care about ultimate privacy and security for their messages should probably switch from Apple’s Messages to Meta’s WhatsApp.

    Of course, for the most personal and secure messaging, one should always use Signal.

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