WhatsApp, Privacy and Me

Sometime in January, WhatsApp started showing a pop-up asking me to agree to their updated privacy policy if I wanted to continue using the app beyond 8th February. In the normal course, I would have agreed without giving much thought to it. After all, we don’t really read the User Agreement every time we install or update an app. Like everyone else, I am also blasé about my privacy online – willing to risk the possibility of exposing myself as a tradeoff for the convince of using electronic tools / applications / websites etc. Like most of us, my rationale is “I’ve nothing to hide”. But what irked me about this was the feeling WhatsApp was putting a gun to my head – “Agree by 8th Feb or I’ll pull the trigger”. I decided to look for alternatives to WhatsApp for my messaging / communication needs. A lot of users evidently shared my attitude, since WhatsApp extended the deadline to 15th May. They climbed down further, allowing users to continue using the app even after that date without agreeing to the new terms. As of now it’s not clear whether WhatsApp will back down completely or go through with its threat of blocking users who don’t agree. Currently there is also some back and forth between the government and WhatsApp about the policy. But regardless of the ultimate outcome, I have shifted to alternative apps (Telegram and Signal) for my primary communication needs. During the transition, and till such time WhatsApp doesn’t make up its mind to block users who don’t agree to the new privacy agreement, I’ve made temporary arrangements to cater for my FOMO by using a prepaid number and an old instrument.

I sent out a message to all my contacts informing them about the change, and a large number of them messaged back wanting to know more about the issue. Thinking my concern is shared by many, and my decision probably prompted them to try and understand – “Is it really such a big deal?”, I decided to write this post explaining my reasons and rationale as an easier alternative to responding at length individually, with the aim plus of helping people beyond my contact list also to think through the decision that many must be dealing with right now. A very big disclaimer here – I am not an expert, nor have I gone very deep into the language and implications of the changed agreement. These are just my own thoughts and logic based on the little that I understand.

In a nutshell the changes proposed by WhatsApp are – you are permitting them to share your usage data with Facebook (its parent company). There have been several clarifications by WhatsApp subsequently, possibly to control the bleed of subscribers like me. I found them to be mainly platitudes assuring that the privacy of their users and transparency in dealing with us are their primary concerns, followed by explanation of the initial terms in greater detail. I, for one, haven’t been reassured by this and have not changed my mind.

Some of the ‘FAQs’ about this whole shift away from WhatsApp that I’ve faced are as follows –

  • Why should I worry, since I don’t use WhatsApp to interact with business accounts (and don’t intend to in future)?
  • Why should I worry about anyone seeing my messages? I have nothing to hide.
  • What is the guarantee that Telegram / Signal also won’t come up with similar terms later?
  • Why worry when as it is we share so much online and all our data is susceptible to hacking?

These are valid questions, all of which apply to me as well. I don’t interact (or have plans to interact) with business accounts on WhatsApp, have nothing to hide, share a lot of information on social media, and am aware there is no guarantee that other apps do not follow in the footsteps and bring in similar measures.But the biggest threat became apparent to me when I realised the degree to which I had become dependent on WhatsApp, purely because everyone is on it. There’s no point of a messaging app unless the person you want to send the message to also has it. This universal dependence is probably what WhatsApp is relying upon, judging by its attempts at ‘gun to forehead’ coercion. Since the dependence would only increase with time, I thought this was a good opportunity to switch before WhatsApp becomes the Hotel California in my phone. Why wait for the dependence to grow, to the extent that one is forced to agree to access even beyond communications with business accounts if they ask us sometime in the future?

I’m also aware of the old adage “If you’re not paying for paying for the product, you are the product.” Incidentally, this didn’t originate in the era of social media as I’d originally thought, but dates back to the 70s where it referred to advertising revenue driven free television channels. Yes, tomorrow Telegram and Signal could also look at monetising their data (your data). After all, the investors in these companies aren’t in it for charity, and would have a revenue model in mind for ROI. But WhatsApp is owned by Facebook who bought it in 2014 for $ 16 billion, and therefore has both greater incentive and greater wherewithal to harvest and use such data, as compared to others like Telegram / Signal due to ‘Network Effects‘. Even if the latter want to, their ability to use that data is limited compared to WhatsApp and Facebook. And tomorrow if they do come up with a similar ‘threat’, I feel I could abandon them and switch to other alternatives at that time.

But what is the actual threat? After all, what do I stand to compromise if someone like WhatsApp / Facebook is privy to my WhatsApp messages? Even if all my messages are mundane and boring? But the first threat I envisage is about giving WhatsApp access to my online transactions. Below is an extract from the revised privacy agreement.

While this is restricted to transactions made using WhatsApp only right now, I’m not willing to take a chance of leaving myself open to WhatsApp gradually becoming more and more blasé about what else they want access to as they come to realise the degree of dependence we have on them. I certainly wouldn’t want them becoming privy to all transactions I make online through my phone, which has all my banking apps and wallets. If WhatsApp / Facebook has access to this data, it’s not as if they themselves will use this for unauthorised access to my bank account to defraud me. But Facebook has suffered data breaches earlier, and will face them in future as well. They are also allowed to sell this data to third parties, who in turn are also susceptible to hacking / data breaches. The banks themselves are susceptible, you may argue. But any loss caused to me through such a breach is the bank’s liability. I’m not sure where the liability for a possible loss to me through a data breach at Facebook or a third party to whom its sold the data will lie – specially if I’ve consented to share the information as above.

Apart from transactions related data, WhatsApp wants to collect the following information –

Certain information is essential for any messaging app to function. But the comparison of the information collected by others vs WhatsApp below is eye opening.

Signal vs Telegram vs WhatsApp

WhatsApp and Facebook use the data they collect to profile each user. By providing more and more data about ourselves to the big tech companies, we are enabling them to refine this profiling of us. This profile is used to show us targeted advertising and filter the content we see on the platforms in an attempt to increase our engagement. To understand the disturbing extent to which this has progressed , I encourage you to read this article. Incidentally, users in European Union have the option of opting out of this agreement without losing any functionality due to their better data privacy laws (GDPR). This itself is indicative of need for legislation for better protection of our data privacy in India too.

Filtering of content based on our profile traps us in echo chambers reflecting our own thoughts and biases. For instance, we mainly see content that aligns with our political leanings, instead of getting conflicting views as well. Social media is where we get most of our news and inputs these days. Since fake news abounds these platforms, and most of us don’t read beyond headlines, these echo chambers are increasingly leading to subtle political indoctrination – mainly as a side effect, but also being capitalised on by political parties. The threat potential of this was demonstrated when Cambridge Analytica allegedly used Facebook data to influence the US presidential elections.

Let’s come back to the bottomline, which I can summarise as follows. The probability of direct or indirect harm by agreeing to the new privacy policy is low, specially when weighed against the short term inconvenience of shifting out of the app altogether. But long term potential harm is a distinct if distant risk, against which I am willing to suffer the short term inconvenience. Specially since my dependence on WhatsApp isn’t so much right now that I would allow it to force me to agree. Getting out now before that dependence grows makes a lot of sense to me.

So even if you don’t (or can’t) quit WhatsApp, I’d advise you to get on Telegram and Signal as well. To stay in touch with people like me who’ve left or are leaving WhatsApp, and also to have alternatives readily available if you do choose to quit.