The first social networks popped up in the late 1990s, and many have emerged and disappeared since then. But few have been as influential as Twitter, which has had a major impact on our society, galvanizing social and political movements across the globe.
Twitter has historically faced weak competition in its niche market, but the need for an alternative became evident after Elon Musk acquired the company in 2022. And it appears as though Twitter now finally has a real competitor, called Threads. But what exactly is Threads? Is it safe and secure? And what about privacy on the service?
What Is Threads? How Does It Work?
Threads is owned and operated by Meta Platforms, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. It was first introduced in 2019 via Instagram, and allowed users to exchange messages and photos, as well as make audio and video calls. But Threads was not received well by Instagram users at the time, so Meta discontinued it, and added the aforementioned features to the Instagram app itself.
Threads was dormant until October 2022. At that time, Musk acquired Twitter and vowed to make various changes. This did not sit well with many Twitter users, so thousands migrated to platforms such as Mastodon. But none of these services took off, for various reasons, so Meta began exploring the possibility of relaunching a modified version of Threads that would serve as an alternative to Twitter.
Rumors that Threads was being redeveloped as a microblogging platform first emerged in June 2023. Shortly after that, on July 5, Threads launched in over 100 countries. Within a week, it became the fastest growing app of all time, gaining more than 100 million users and surpassing ChatGPT.
Threads is available on Android and iOS, though not worldwide at the time of writing. The app itself is very simple and easy to use—if you have ever used Twitter, that is, because Threads is pretty much a Twitter clone.
There are some slight design and branding differences, though. Posts aren't called tweets, but rather threads. So even if you can't literally "retweet" a post, you can repost it, like it, quote it, and reply to it. Obviously, users can follow others, upload images and videos, and so on.
Is the Threads App Secure?
Big tech products are not inherently safer than apps made by independent developers and mid-sized companies. However, it can't be disputed that corporations such as Meta have far greater budgets and can therefore afford what others cannot. This means that Meta has extensive, dedicated cybersecurity teams, well-established security protocols, and such.
On the flip side, a product such as Threads certainly has a larger attack surface than a less-known service, which obviously makes it easier for cyberattackers to strike. No wonder, then, that both Facebook and Instagram have suffered serious data breaches in the past. Similarly, smaller teams are often more focused on customer feedback, have responsive support, and are compelled by circumstances to innovate and experiment.
To be more specific, Meta says it limits physical access to its data centers and has rigorous controls. Plus, the company has all employees go through security training, performs testing regularly, and maintains a vulnerability management program. The tech giant also has elaborate incident response plans in place, as well as an active bug bounty program.
But Threads has one major security issue that cannot really be resolved: it hosts user-generated content. Naturally, as a social media platform, it allows users to upload videos and images, share links, and so on. This means that nothing really stops a threat actor from, say, posting a phishing link and scamming people.
Of course, all social media nowadays has content filters, moderation, and allows users to report others, but suspicious links still slip through the cracks. And that's not the only thing regular users need to worry about. It's almost certain that Threads will have to deal with a lot of spam, disinformation, fake news, and all sorts of similar issues.
Then there's also the issue of account security. Not everyone is careful or sufficiently technologically literate, so it's not uncommon for people to reuse old passwords, store their credentials unsafely, and generally behave in a way that they expose themselves to danger. This means that account takeover, whether through social engineering or a different type of attack, is always a threat.
What Information Does Threads Collect?
And now the interesting part: data collection. Meta does not have a good track record when it comes to respecting user privacy, to put it mildly. There is reason for concern, and not just because of what the Mark Zuckerberg-owned company has done in the past.
As previously mentioned, Threads was launched in July 2023 in more than 100 countries, but this did not include European Union member states. In Europe, the launch was delayed precisely over data privacy concerns. As Meta spokesperson Christine Pai told The Verge at the time, "regulatory uncertainty" is what made Threads think twice about launching in the EU.
But what exactly is so scandalous about Meta's data collection practices? According to Time, Threads gathers information about a user's device, search history, health, finance, and much more. Needless to say, this data is used primarily to create more personalized ad campaigns.
Data privacy experts that Time spoke with expressed concerns over Threads' data collection policies, but noted that this is not unusual in the tech world, and that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram do the same. All of these apps collect way more information than they need to function, and likely won't stop doing so unless they come under intense regulatory pressure.
Threads Might Be a Decent Twitter Alternative, but It's Not Safer
Threads is probably as secure as other popular social media platforms. Ultimately, it's up to the users themselves to take appropriate measures and refrain from engaging in risky behavior. It does collect a huge amount of data, however, like virtually all Meta products.
Whether Threads will assert itself as a serious alternative to Twitter remains to be seen, but there are other social networks vying for this spot. Substack Notes, Nettr, Clubhouse, to name a few, are all leaving their mark in the micro-blogging space. And some actually respect user privacy, while also taking security seriously.