Messenger applications such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are popular. Because they enable fast, uncomplicated communication. Unfortunately, however, such chat programs can also become a data risk, both for private communications and for and professional chats.

Familiar, popular, threatening?

It vibrates, it pings, it beeps: anyone in Germany who uses a smartphone or cell phone receives an average of 13 short messages per day, according to a survey by the digital association Bitkom. „Short messages play a very central role not only in private communication. Especially during the Corona pandemic, many keep in touch with friends and family members this way and can exchange greetings, photos and even videos quickly and easily,“ says Bitkom CEO Dr. Bernhard Rohleder. Anyone with a smartphone almost always also uses messenger services such as WhatsApp, Signal or Threema. 9 out of 10 (88 percent) smartphone users use corresponding apps. This corresponds to around 50 million people in Germany.

Professional communication also takes place via messenger apps such as WhatsApp, Signal or Telegram, as does sending vacation greetings. For example, 36 percent make a moving image call on vacation via Skype, Facetime or WhatsApp. Messenger is now the most frequently used means of communication. This makes it all the more important that communication via messenger can take place in an absolutely trustworthy and secure environment, as the digital association Bitkom emphasizes.

Data protectionists point out numerous risks with messengers

The particularly popular WhatsApp service is often criticized for its data protection. One problem: Already when logging into WhatsApp, all contact data that someone has stored in the phone can be transferred to the provider. There is no legal basis for this, nor can the people stored in the user’s phone consent to or object to the transfer of data, warn the data protection supervisory authorities.

„There are significantly more data-saving messenger services on the market that offer the same communication options,“ says, for example, the State Commissioner for Data Protection (LfD) of Niedersachsen, Barbara Thiel. The State Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information of North Rhine-Westphalia has already published socalled „Guard rails for the selection of messenger services“ to help with the selection of suitable messenger apps (available as a PDF at https://ogy.de/leitplanken-ldi-nrw).

What matters with messengers

Therefore, before deciding on a messenger service, you should check,

  • whether the provider informs you transparently about the data processing associated with the use (privacy policy),
  • whether the provider complies with the data protection requirements for (non-)disclosure and (non-)evaluation of personal data,
  • whether the personal data is to be transferred to a country outside the EU,
  • whether data protection-friendly settings are possible or, even better, preset,
  • whether you can use the messenger app without transmitting the contact data available in the address book, in particular telephone numbers, to the provider for purposes of the provider or for third-party purposes, and
  • whether the provider encrypts transmitted data using generally accepted and state-of-the-art procedures.

Use only approved messengers and protect privacy

Obviously, there are numerous requirements for messenger services, as there can be multiple data risks when installing and using them. Therefore, at work, only use messenger apps if they are approved internally, and then only those that are truly approved. Privately, you should also think carefully about who you trust with your contact data, photos, videos and status information. It is not easy to check data protection compliance yourself. That’s why the privacy regulators‘ guidance on individual messenger services is valuable and helpful, such as in the aforementioned „Guardrails for choosing messenger services.“

Even if particularly popular and well-known messengers are widely used, this does not mean that these messenger apps are particularly secure and privacy-friendly. Talk about data protection with messengers in your private environment as well and decide together with your contacts for more data protection in digital communication!