How HalloApp Aims to Keep Its Social Network Private

But can it deliver on its promise?

  • HalloApp describes itself as “the first real relationship network.”
  • HalloApp is available in Apple’s App Store and on Google Play.
  • You may be better off sticking with iMessage or Signal.
HalloApp on a smartphone screen held by two hands

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HalloApp hopes to build a private, friends-only social network, free from algorithms and creepy advertising. It comes from two members of the original WhatsApp team. Can it succeed?

There are two kinds of social media. One is the Facebook/Instagram model, where almost everything is public, and we overshare in the competition to be liked. The other is the WhatsApp model, which is more private, and mostly built around your real friends. But even though the contents of your WhatsApp is encrypted, everything else—who you are, where you are, and when and who you message with—all ends up in Facebook’s surveillance machine. 

The alternative is something like Apple’s iMessage, which is private and personal, but limited in terms of sharing to groups. That’s where HalloApp comes in.

“The endless parade of data breaches, scandals, and disingenuous corporate practices has made consumers increasingly sensitive to the smoke-and-mirrors and lip service that so many companies have given as they pledge to respect customer privacy; so having the option to use a platform that genuinely respects individuals’ privacy would be welcome,” Sharon Polsky, president of the Privacy and Access Council of Canada, told Lifewire via email. 

Hello HalloApp

The app, itself, is simple, consisting of four tabs: Home, which is your feed; Groups; Chats; and settings. The design is so clean that it’s a relief just to look at the screenshots. We’re so used to recommendations, badges, pop-up alerts, and all the other clutter that services like Instagram use to keep us scrolling and tapping, that it’s easy to forget how pleasant an app designed just for communication can be. 

Three HalloApp screens

HalloApp

But a well-designed app isn’t enough to create a successful social network. The barrier is the network itself. To be useful, your family and friends have to be there. HalloApp uses your phone number and name (more on this in a moment) to build your network, but you still have to convince those contacts to join up.

But perhaps the promise of privacy is enough to tempt them.

“People are getting more aware and careful about sharing their data and keeping themselves protected from possible leaks,” Chris Worrell, chief privacy officer of Privacy Bee, told Lifewire via email. “Some even lost their trust using any messaging apps. So, if [something offers] them the privacy they need, then it will not matter if it is Telegram, WhatsApp, Signal, iMessage or a new chat service like HalloApp.”

Private or Not?

But it’s not all good news. The HalloApp founders make a big deal of privacy, but to create your network, the app uses your address book, as co-founder Neeraj Arora explains in a blog post

HalloApp photo on screen of a generic phone

HalloApp

That’s pretty standard, and some apps won’t even let you send a message to a new phone number unless you upload your contact list. But “your” address book isn’t your data. It belongs to all the people in that list, and can be used to build so-called shadow profile of folks in that list, even if they don’t use Facebook or WhatsApp. 

Then, Polsky notes, HalloApp also uses Google tracking tech to analyze your app usage:

“The company's ‘privacy’ policy (that many people are unlikely to read) belies the well-worded assurances,” says Polsky. “Two items stand out as particularly concerning: Firstly, HalloApp uses ‘services such as Google Analytics’ which ‘may also collect information about your use of other websites, apps, and online resources.’ That sort of vague open-ended language has helped the relatively new data broker industry to come into existence and thrive.”

"That sort of vague open-ended language has helped the relatively new data broker industry to come into existence and thrive."

The other problem noticed by Polsky is that HalloApp makes no mention of the privacy rights of Californians under the CCPA, even though HalloApp is a California-based company.

Perhaps the lesson here is that all social networks compromise your privacy to some extent. The important part is what the services do with the data. It’s possible that HalloApp’s use of Google Analytics is innocent, but who knows? 

It might be better for you to stick with plain messaging apps like iMessage and Signal. You might not get a beautiful feed to scroll through on the subway, but neither do you have to worry about where your data ends up. In the end, you have to decide how much your own privacy, and that of the people in your address book, matters to you.

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