Much ado about nothing?

Facebook magnificently bungled up its recent communication on WhatsApp’s new T&Cs. A pop-up appeared last week to warn users that WhatsApp will be passing private information over to Facebook, and users have until 8th February to agree, otherwise they will be shut out of the service.

There ensued a panic move towards Signal and Telegram, two alternatives to WhatsApp that saw a huge surge in their downloads (although I doubt that the surge represents people actually leaving WhatsApp). There was also a public uproar. After cooler heads prevailed, it turned out that the only changes about to be implemented concerned our interactions with business accounts (chatting with customer service, for example). The rest is unchanged.

So is this a storm in a teacup? Should we go back to WhatsApp?

Even though the announced changes had no real impact on our general use of WhatsApp (if you don’t communicate with businesses), the announcement did have the benefit of shining a light on what has been taking place surreptitiously for the last five years: Facebook has been quietly harvesting our private data on the sly. We were just complacent. Here’s some of what WhatsApp transfers to Facebook:

  • your phone number
  • logs of how long and how often you use WhatsApp
  • Information on how you interact with users
  • Device identifiers: eg model, screen resolution
  • IP address
  • operating system
  • browser details
  • battery health information
  • app version
  • mobile network
  • language
  • time zones
  • location information

Facebook is struggling to monetise WhatsApp and its latest attempt is to do that through the business channel. After all, businesses are its true customers.

Having said that, it is fair to note that your WhatsApp communication itself is still encrypted, end-end, so no-one can read it, not even Facebook. Here I make a distinction between “security” and “privacy”, where the former is to protect our communication and prevent third parties (including governments) access and to protect against snooping. “Privacy” for me is the ability to mine our digital footprint, build a personal profile, monetise it and serve it back against us, with the intention of manipulating and retaining us. (This profile is the actual product that they sell to their real customers, the advertisers). I value Privacy highly.

People sometimes ask me what I plan to do. I am not a huge fan of Facebook (read that very ironically), and I would love to reduce my Facebook footprint. I have already deleted my Facebook account (that’s for another post), but I still have Instagram and WhatsApp. WhatsApp is difficult to leave if I’m alone in doing so. So this for me is a golden opportunity to ride the wave and leave the app. Telegram and Signal are very good alternatives. But to which should I move? I made a high level comparison here.

Encryption: excellent
Data Privacy (use of your data to monetise): low
Users: 2B
Owner: Facebook, Zuckerberg

Encryption: medium (not on by default)
Data privacy: very good
Users: 500M
Owner: Telegram, CEO & majority shareholder, Pavel Durov

Encryption: excellent
Data privacy: very good
Users: 20M
Owner: Non-profit Signal Technology Foundation, co-founders Brian Acton and Moxie Marlinspike

For those of you who don’t mind having your data mined, then WhatsApp is still a good platform as it does excellent end-end encryption (actually, it uses Signal technology). (Having said that, if encryption is important for you, then you shouldn’t use email). On a personal note, encryption is not such an important criterion for me, so the main differentiators will be the number of users and the business model. I am leaning finally towards Signal, emboldened by the number of my contacts who have spontaneously switched (many of them not technophiles). And for what it’s worth, the fact that Signal is a non-profit foundation, co-founded by one of WhatsApp’s co-founders, somehow reassured me in my decision. Plus, I do not feel comfortable with having only one person — accountable to no-one — with so much power over one platform, whether that’s Facebook or Telegram.

Of course I understand that the switch will not happen overnight and that there will be a transition period with both platforms active on my phone. My hope is that I will reduce my use of WhatsApp and increase that of Signal as more and more of my friends migrate. And I will keep an eye out as Signal evolves.

This is my chance. Why don’t you join me.

Update 16 January 2021: Facebook announced that it postponed the transition to the new T&Cs to May.

2 thoughts on “Much ado about nothing?

Add yours

  1. Well articulated, Hani.. We live in a digital era where information privacy is seen critical in social, business and government context. With the advent of decentralized networks and ever increasing consumer awareness, privacy would be the epicenter in data management.

    1. Thanks Prakash! Indeed, totally agree with you. With the exposure of Pegasus debacle, the public is much more aware of how critical privacy is. Unfortunately, you don’t need to hack a phone to steal your privacy. And this, I believe, does not have the same level of urgency.

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