Decoding the WhatsApp Privacy Controversy

The tech industry treats privacy as a very 20th-century concept which has no place in the new world order powered by surveillance capitalism and attention economy. The latest rules from WhatsApp, owned by data Frankenstein Facebook, stand testimony to this.

Brian Acton is the co-founder of WhatsApp. He left the messaging app’s leadership team in September 2017. His plan to quit one of the most successful tech companies in history created an obvious furore. Acton said he was just acting on his ethical guidelines. He told Forbes he had to make the decision as Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and its chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg wanted to monetize WhatsApp. Acton and his co-founder Jan Koum wanted WhatsApp to be a private, ad-free platform where people can constantly communicate. When Acton left WhatsApp, Forbes called the move “perhaps the most expensive moral stand in history” because the young man left Facebook a year before his stocks “vested”, which cost him some $850 million.  

Acton founded Signal, with Moxie Marlinspike, in February 2018. Interestingly, and ironically, today, privacy-focused Signal, which is run by the nonprofit Signal Technology Foundation, is cited as the best alternative to WhatsApp, which technologists and tech industry watchers feel is falling prey to a confused business strategy that its parents Facebook follows. The latest controversy around a fresh round of privacy updates that WhatsApp notified last week (to be effective from February 8) is a solid example of that. Even though WhatsApp has done a somersault on its earlier stance and clarified that the new, controversial clauses apply only to business accounts and not for consumer or retail accounts, the debate around WhatsApp’s alleged quest for monetising user data is raging. 

What’s happening, WhatsApp?

In the new privacy policy and terms of service, WhatsApp basically did three things:

  1. It told the users that it would share some of their private data with Facebook, which bought WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014.
  2. It also said the data it would glean and sell is for their own good.
  3. The app also said users should obey or bow out.

Even though WhatsApp now says the new regime is only meant for business accounts, the privacy notification that most of its two billion users received last week didn’t specify that.

Privacy rights activists allege that WhatsApp is not feigning ignorance and was actually testing the waters. It was the size and scale of the backlash and the mass exodus of WhatsApp users to apps with better privacy controls, such as Telegram, Signal and paid apps such as Threema, that prompted WhatsApp to have a change of heart, they say.   

The critics seem to have a point there. A Freudian reading of the clarification WhatsApp has issued (which was published by Verge) clearly shows the company’s management was forced to roll back on its previous plans. “As we announced in October, WhatsApp wants to make it easier for people to both make a purchase and get help from a business directly on WhatsApp,” says the app in its clarification. It admits that “most people use WhatsApp to chat with friends and family” but it also says “increasingly people are reaching out to businesses as well” on the app. So, the carefully worded statement says that “to further increase transparency”, the app has updated its policy in such a way that “going forward businesses can choose to receive secure hosting services” from Facebook. But the choice is the users’. 

Reading between the lines 

The most interesting statement in the clarification is this: WhatsApp says the update does not change WhatsApp’s data-sharing practices with Facebook and does not impact how people communicate privately with friends or family. “WhatsApp remains deeply committed to protecting people’s privacy.” N13 users may remember that in 2016, WhatsApp did offer its users an option to choose whether they wanted to share data with Facebook. That seems to have vanished now, especially for business users. But wondering what exactly does WhatsApp know about its users? Well, the dossier includes the phone number of the user and those in his or her address book, profile photo and name, status messages (this is a goldmine in the age of Big Data analytics and behavioural manipulation), user’s last-online status and the so-called diagnostic data from app logs. Diagnostic data includes information on the app’s performance, errors, usage statistics and other vital information.   

What’s wrong in sharing this data with Facebook then? After all, most WhatsApp users are on Facebook as well, one may ask. Well, privacy rights activists say it is not that simple. In an era when data is called the new oil, sharing such vital information with a third-party will expose individuals to greater danger.

As Facebook’s own scandal, the infamous Cambridge Analytica profiling scam, showed, user data can be used to change people’s decisions on myriad things, from buying a product to supporting a cause. The only way one can ensure that such mishaps do not occur is to have complete and absolute control over what to share, where to share and with whom. 

Data, ta-da!

As things stand now, most tech platforms, especially Facebook and very soon WhatsApp, do not offer that room for their users. When WhatsApp says it “receives information from, and shares information with” its family companies, it could mean not only Facebook but also the many other enterprises of the tech giant, including Instagram and many others. Facebook has acquired about 80 companies in the past 15 years and it is likely the user data can reach the hands of any of these companies and future tweaks in privacy clauses can see the data end up in the labs of companies the user would never want to have any association with, allege activists.   

Interestingly, the timing of the new clauses from WhatsApp is also tricky. Just a few weeks ago, Apple had asked the apps on its iOS platform to tell the gadget maker what type of data they collect from users.

Apple has revealed that WhatsApp can collect an enormous amount of data from its user. Yes, the kitty includes the usual suspects such as where the users are based and from where they are using the app, their contacts, etc. But the app also has the right to see what they buy, read financial information, know what they talk to each other (user content) and, yes, the diagnostic data. 

Time to change

Many feel this is way too much of disclosure that a user can offer to an app. Giving such powers to apps that with their billion-plus user base, can make or break the tech industry, can be dangerous for data privacy and individual liberty, especially considering that these companies are driven by the profit motive and there are truckloads of money to be made in the data business. 

Read: Data Security: Your Apps Sell an Alarming Lot

The lure is too good to resist. That said, rights advocates say a fair share of the blame should rest with the users as well. A lot of them have scant regard for placing precious private information on social media and they have fallen for the intoxicants social media platforms have been supplying as part of the attention economy. These “lotus-eaters” of the digital era refuse to raise concerning questions and hesitate to hold the tech giants, especially the Big Tech including Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft accountable for their thinly-veiled manipulative practices. 

Will the latest controversy over WhatsApp’s privacy clauses force them to have a change of heart? Well, that’s a billion-dollar question. Literally and figuratively. 

Also See: Beware! Big Tech is Watching Your Children

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