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CHOOSE YOUR MESSENGER - WHY IS EVERYONE DITCHING WHATSAPP

A recent pop-up on WhatsApp advised users of their updated Terms of Service and Privacy Policy coming into effect on 8 February 2021. This started a rush of users to abandon the platform as their primary messaging service.

There have been some excellent articles written on the subject over the last couple days and I’ve provided a list of my favourites at the end of this post. What most of these articles focus on is the update to WhatsApp’s policies or the security of the system. This doesn’t encapsulate the real issue for me as the new Terms of Service and Privacy Policy (which I will refer to as the New Terms) are well written and not unreasonable. But that has not stopped the public backlash against WhatsApp and this needs to be discussed because if the New Terms are not unreasonable then why are people abandoning the platform.

Context is important, so I need to cover same basic facts about WhatsApp and Facebook:

 

  1. Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014 and have, to date, not integrated it fully into the ‘Facebook Company Products’ (https://faq.whatsapp.com/general/security-and-privacy/the-facebook-company-products).
  2. WhatsApp does not cost the consumer money to use but it costs Facebook money to run. So, Facebook are on a journey to monetise WhatsApp by integrating it into the Facebook Company Products i.e. you provide your personal data and companies pay Facebook for that data, allowing you to use WhatsApp for “free”.
  3. Apple recently introduced compulsory privacy labels in the Apple AppStore showing what personal data the relevant app acquires and tracks. Facebook has been the most vocal opponent to include these labels.
  4. WhatsApp’s New Terms enable two main changes: 1) monetisation of certain data you share on WhatsApp; 2) better integration of WhatsApp data into the Facebook ecosystem.
  5. WhatsApp is an American company, so their Terms of Use and Privacy Policy are based on American (specifically Californian) privacy law. The fundamental difference between American Privacy law and South African privacy law is that in America privacy is considered more of a consumer protection right, while in South Africa it is considered a human right.
  6. WhatsApp has different Terms of Service and a different Privacy Policy for its customers based in the European Union. The discussion in this post is around the terms applying in South Africa i.e., the American Terms.

With the above in mind, I would break down the newfound concern with WhatsApp into three fundamental areas:

 

  1. security of WhatsApp messages;
  2. privacy of WhatsApp messages;
  3. being profiled across Facebook’s platforms allowing one company to possess, utilise and monetise massive amounts of personal data, over which the data subject has little control.

Let’s break these down, addressing the first two points in one:

 

Privacy and security are linked but are not synonymous. Privacy is a legal concept to be let alone and is defined differently per country based on societal norms, political and economic systems. It is closely linked to other fundamental rights like freedom of expression, belief, opinion association, assembly and political rights. Without the right to privacy these other rights cannot be fully enjoyed.

 

Security is the efficacy of data at any given time being free from unauthored access or interference. In a technical system, privacy is often realised through the implementation of security measures, like end-to-end encryption.

So, how secure is WhatsApp?

 

Other than for the normal security flaws which occur in all software, there is nothing to indicate that WhatsApp is not a secure messaging platform. In fact, WhatsApp offers end-to-end encryption which means (technically) neither WhatsApp, nor any third party can read your messages. However, encryption is only mentioned in the Privacy Policy and not in the Terms of Service and even in the Privacy Policy it is not mentioned in great detail. So, contractually, there is little to rely on for the consumer regarding say a warranty around end-to-end encryption.

 

Security is expensive and if WhatsApp is successful in monetising WhatsApp (or even if it isn’t) Facebook has the wherewithal to be the most technically secure messenger on offer, as smaller players may just not have the capital to spend on the latest systems.

 

We may assume that then WhatsApp is secure but that is half the battle. Just because a platform is secure does not mean that your personal data which subsists in it is private. In fact, the key update to their Privacy Policy is to share your personal data across the Facebook Company Products (https://faq.whatsapp.com/general/security-and-privacy/the-facebook-company-products).

So, how Private is Your Activity on WhatsApp?

 

If we accept that WhatsApp encrypts all your messages, then we can accept that there is no way for them to read these messages. So then how will Facebook monetise WhatsApp without knowing what you are talking about?

 

The answer is by integrating new features, such as WhatsApp Pay and linking businesses directly to consumers via WhatsApp. It will also mean that your status and contact information (of you, your address book and how you link) will also be linked to Facebook thereby allowing WhatsApp to have a better understanding of you, as well as your personal and commercial habits.

 

So, while your messages will technically be private your activity on WhatsApp and your surrounding information garnered by WhatsApp will not be, or at least to the standard most people would be comfortable with. So, WhatsApp is a private messenger only insofar as the messages themselves are concerned but not in terms of much else.

Security and Privacy Link to Profiling

Taking into account the security and privacy of WhatsApp, the final issue is trust in Facebook which has been called into question over the last year. Because while legally WhatsApp is becoming closer to Facebook’s terms, practically what you do on WhatsApp is different to your activity on Facebook.

 

The New Terms complete Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp which will now be another of Facebook’s products. Logically then, WhatsApp will be used to personalise your overall Facebook experience and monetise your data across all of Facebook’s products (see ‘How We Work With Other Facebook Companies’ in the updated Privacy Policy).

 

The counter argument to this is that you’re on Facebook already so what does it matter? This falls flat because if people were comfortable with how Facebook handles the information it currently has on them then Facebook Messenger would be a reasonable alternative. Which in all the articles setting out alternative messengers is not mentioned.

 

Messaging and social media are different, and privacy should be treated differently on these platforms. The apparent risk posed by WhatsApp’s updates is it allows one company whose core purpose is to monetise personal data and based in a foreign jurisdiction (with far laxer privacy laws than our own) to control and exploit one’s personal data.

This raises the question of: “Are you happy with Facebook having even more information of yours, to create a more robust and correct model of your personality in order to profit off it?”

This is the core issue for most people and, I would argue, why most people are looking for alternatives in Signal and Telegram. Facebook has not shown that they take privacy very seriously, because they can’t, if they took privacy too seriously their business model would crumble. Facebook need to integrate WhatsApp into their ecosystem but consumers do not need to accept that integration (insofar as they can move to alternatives).

 

For this reason, it is understandable that people are looking for alternatives which, currently, are less integrated across multiple platforms.

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Brendon Ambrose