Creepy data collection and sharing remain common on popular apps

In a recent Mozilla review of the privacy features of 21 popular video call apps, only two were singled out for outstanding features (Signal and Threema). Meanwhile, three products were slapped with a dreaded “*Privacy Not Included” warning label (Facebook Messenger, WeChat, and Houseparty).

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Mozilla’s research also reveals that Slack, one of the most popular chat products, doesn’t give users the option to block contacts — a design decision that can enable harassment. As a result, a petition has been launched, urging Slack to add a “block” functionality.

In this edition, researchers revist the original 15 apps reviewed in the spring 2020 guide to see which are improving and which are backsliding.

Says Jen Caltrider, research lead at Mozilla: “Video call apps are now a routine part of millions of people’s lives. And even when the pandemic recedes, that won’t change. In this new world, people deserve to know if the apps they’re using everyday respect their privacy — or if they’re snooping on them.”

Caltrider continues: “While video call apps may feel more intimate than social media platforms, there’s still a ton of data being collected, stored, and shared. For that reason, users should assume that anything they say on a video call app could be made public.”

Privacy is a luxury

Only two apps earned “Best Of” designation: Signal and Threema. Signal is free, but Threema costs $2.99. Meanwhile, three apps earned the “*Privacy Not Included” warning labels, including WeChat, Houseparty, and Facebook Messenger (all are free).

These apps use poor encryption, or else collect large amounts of personal data and then potentially share it with shady data brokers.

There’s no good solution for harassment

Workers or students facing harassment on video call apps often lack in-product support. Slack has no way to block a user, for example, and while Teams has a block feature, it’s only for personal instances, not for school or work instances.

Forcing people to rely on HR or IT departments to protect them from abuse over messaging platforms is not ideal. To help address this problem, a petition has been launched, urging Slack to introduce a “block” feature.

Apps’ privacy policies are basically unreadable

The research learned just 8 out of 21 products have user-friendly privacy information available to consumers. Finding out data retention periods and how to delete data is especially challenging.

Further, big companies like Microsoft tend to use a general umbrella privacy policy, so it’s difficult to know specifically what personal data a video call app collects.

The pandemic is forcing some apps to improve

Many apps weren’t ready for the rapid growth sparked by the pandemic, but have since improved. Several apps have added great new features, like more end-to-end encryption (Zoom), strong password requirements (Discord and, and more, as well as many new user experience features, like smart AI assistants and AI-driven noise reduction.

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