The new WhatsApp policy: where to next?

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WhatsApp, like any application/software has a usage policy that is several pages long. As is expected of almost any policy document, almost no one reads it. Because of this, software creators often sneak in or remove certain statements without the average person noticing the difference. People only make a fuss of what the media primes them to and that is exactly what is currently happening following the release of the new WhatsApp policy.

WhatsApp automatically requires access to detailed information about the user, and their device: IP and Mac Addresses, user logs, status updates, availability profiles, etc. Even though some of the information are required to smoothly run the app, others are not entirely essential. In the past, like in 2012, you could refuse to allow WhatsApp to collect the non-essential information with the drawback that you would not get an “improved experience”. However, earlier this month, it was announced that starting Feb 8, the policy was going to be all or nothing. So, it is either you accept the policy to use the app or refuse and be booted out. This news caused an uproar and raised some eyebrows. The reaction was so intense to the extent that some countries even initiated processes to review the new policy to ascertain whether it was breaking their local data privacy laws. WhatsApp has responded to the outrage by delaying the implementation of the new policy.

Owing to the privacy issues and others that could potentially result from the new policy, people have started looking for alternatives. So far, top on the list are Telegram and Signal. But are these apps safe from all these data sharing issues? The short answer is no! Privacy is dead! So far as you’re using a phone in any way or form, you can be profiled. It’s up to you to choose your poison. I once came across a quote that says, “if you are not paying for the product, you are the product”. That summarises everything there is to say about privacy these days.

After a cursory perusal of the policy, a few issues stand out for me but I will point one out. According to the policy, you’re telling Facebook that they do not need your permission to legally use your own data for or against you. So, for example, they could report you if your “data” seems to suggest that you’re suicidal or a security risk. Bear in mind that WhatsApp messages are end-to-end encrypted, which means that WhatsApp technically cannot read your chats and analyse your sentiments. My question is, what kind of metadata allows WhatsApp to determine if you are suicidal, for example? Am I being an overthinker here? Am I making mountains out of molehills?

Now here is my argument. WhatsApp is part of the Facebook group of companies, which includes Instagram and some other 3 lesser known ones. Now, these apps portray different ways in which their users live. Most people use Facebook to connect with friends and family textually, Instagram for pictorial connections, and WhatsApp? What’s it used for? WhatsApp is used for connecting with people on a much deeper level than the previously mentioned apps.  It’s on WhatsApp that you express how you feel, how you want to act, how you want to transact with others. On WhatsApp, you share your photos, account numbers, email addresses, and so forth. Facebook has in the past connected these three apps in a way to seamlessly share things across them. Now, if the three apps are going to be connected on the level of the data they can share without permission, that to me is the ultimate bull’s eye to profile a person flawlessly. I do not want Facebook to know what I might like to eat at my next meal or the city I might want to travel to, etc. Worse still, I don’t want Facebook advertising funeral plans to me because my friend broke their news of a malignant diagnosis to me.

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My resolution, therefore, is to sever that perfect network of data sharing. I would prefer to use a different messaging app that’s not in this perfect network. That way, the only way Facebook can get my other data is if they at least try to buy it from the other party. My advice is this: you can continue to use WhatsApp but be careful how much of your sensitive information you share there. If possible, use other communication means that are less intrusive. People say, “if you’re not going to use WhatsApp, you might as well delete Facebook and Instagram and Google”. That’s like how some people convince themselves to stay in toxic relationships. It’s not an all or nothing affair. Do you know how much data they lose when you refuse to give them even one data source? For now, the agitation has died down a bit because of the news of postponement of the policy. But I know it will be rejuvenated as the implementation day approaches, unless some things are changed. If nothing changes, have a plan!

In conclusion, data privacy is dead! That’s the price we must pay for the digital revolution. But it does not mean we should go down without a fight. If you can do something to reduce how much of your data is being siphoned, do it. It’s not a fuss. Everyone craves privacy and any move that will make you sleep well at night should be welcomed by any other person who has decided to go down without a fight.