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WhatsApp's New Privacy Policy And Why It Matters

Edit: WhatsApp has issued a statement statement clarifying that the new policy effects only business communication and doesn’t change its data sharing policy with Facebook. The statement is potentially misleading. WhatsApp has been sharing data with Facebook since 2016 for the vast majority of its users. This WIRED article explains the issue and current uproar clearly.

What’s happening?

WhatsApp is updating its privacy policy which will come into effect from 8th Feb this year causing a uproar among its users due to removal of a clause that allows people to opt out of sharing data with Facebook. But what people must realise that WhatsApp has been sharing data and meta-data of vast majority of its users (who chose not to opt out) with Facebook since 2016 (At the time WhatsApp had around 1 Billion users) and those who joined later (Around another 1 Billion). And the option to opt-out has been long gone.

​ For those living under a rock, Facebook acquired WhatsApp back in 2014. It also owns Instagram, making it the largest player among social media platforms by a large margin. With the privacy policy changes introduced in 2016, The company has been able to harvest and integrate user data from all the three major platforms. To put things into perspective, WhatsApp has 2 Billion active users , while Facebook itself has reported a MAU (Monthly Active Users) of around 2.7 Billion in Q2 2020.

But my chats are still encrypted, so what’s the problem?

End to End encryption is not enough, it only ensures that the content of your messages cannot be viewed by a third party (including WhatsApp). Whereas simply using an app generates a lot of raw data that can be potentially analyzed to reveal user habits. For example, the messaging app will still know about last seen, whether you are online, have access to your profile picture, etc which allows it to offer its core functionality.

What information does WhatsApp collect?

Please read the whole privacy policy here.

TL;DR Parts to be worried about include how you interact with others, your status information, location, and device information such as IP addresses, unique identifiers etc.

Why is it a big deal?

It’s not just about privacy, it’s much more than that. The company aims to integrate the three of its platform. Which it has been pursuing since 2019 despite facing several anti-trust allegations in the past. Moreover, with the increasing adoption of WhatsApp Business Platform and introduction of WhatsApp Payments, it is only a matter of time that it becomes a much more integral part of your online activity. If left unchecked, it will give the company near-monopolistic power over data generated from social media platforms in times when data is considered as the new oil.

​ Moreover, Facebook already has a troubling history of being a platform used to spread misinformation, hate speech, and even to influence election outcomes. Facebook’s own research showed that 64 percent of the time when Facebook users joined extremist groups, the groups had been recommended by the site’s algorithms. Of course this may not be intentional but it illustrates the power of algorithms. While the company may have several steps to deal with these issues, it simply isn’t enough. The recent controversy regarding its ties to India’s ruling party further question if the platform is truly non-partisan. Simply put by continuing to use WhatsApp, you will be feeding data to a company that is already too powerful, has neglected its responsibilities, and gotten away with it.

Why now? Does it really make a difference if I switch? And what about everyone who I know who is on WhatsApp.

The answer to all these questions is something that economists call the network effect. Simply put it is a phenomenon where the utility you derive from using a product (in our case an instant messaging app) is dependent upon the number of people using it. By continuing to use WhatsApp you are encouraging others to do the same making it much more costly to switch at a later date, also leaving you vulnerable to future changes to the platform and its policies. Whereas by switching, you can possibly trigger a contagion of behaviour where others follow the suit.

TL:DR: yes, it does make a difference. Switch now and pursue others to do the same.

PS: For those interested in reading more about network effects.

What Should I use then?

Signal seems to be pretty popular. Its open-source, developed by a company founded by Brian Acton (One of the two founders of WhatsApp) and is endorsed by the likes of Elon Musk, Edward Snowden, etc.

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.

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