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What's going on with WhatsApp
I read the FAQs and explainers so you don't have to.
Happy 2021! It’s a new year but tech continues to be front and centre of our lives. Art Science Millennial is a newsletter for non-techies navigating the world of tech. I know the struggle because I’m one of you.
While two chat groups aren’t really an avalanche of defections, it’s also the first time such collective “conscientious objection” has happened in my social circle. This is no doubt prompted by the impression of imminent free-for-all sharing of user data with Facebook.
But WhatsApp’s already been sharing data with Facebook since 2016
Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014 and since 2016, data has been flowing from WhatsApp to Facebook. As Wired magazine put it, the in-app notification wasn’t so much a whole-sale change but rather “raises awareness about a step WhatsApp actually took to share more with Facebook back in 2016”.
Such data takes the form of user information and metadata. The New York Times gives some examples:
Phone number used to connect to WhatsApp
How often the app is opened
Device screen resolution
Estimated location based on internet connection
Whether this is comforting or even more distressing is arguable. On the one hand, it’s now emerging that the changes aren’t as drastic as imagined. On the other, we’ve been sharing data all along?!
Of course, it’s easy to think the worst of Facebook (a company that has been accused of destroying democracy and fomenting ethnic cleansing). When I first heard the news, I too assumed: “Oh, evil empire’s going to read all our messages from now.”
WhatsApp knows this is what people probably care about the most and, since the fiasco, has rushed to reiterate that neither WhatsApp nor Facebook can read users’ private messages.
WhatsApp encrypts messages using the well-regarded Signal Protocol, which is ironically also used by the Signal messaging app that WhatsApp defectors are flocking to.
And so, the inevitable question is: “So what exactly is being changed?”
Changes have to do with communication with businesses
WhatsApp wants to become the go-to app for consumers to chat with businesses and the changes are about how firms can store chat logs and associated data on Facebook servers, as well as how they can use the data for activities like advertising. The company probably has ambitious to be a WeChat-like super app, with users messaging, social media, and shopping without leaving its ecosystem.
Three main points are emphasised on WhatsApp’s FAQ:
Businesses can use your communication with them through WhatsApp for marketing purposes, including ads on Facebook.
If you click on Facebook ads with an option to message a business through WhatsApp, these interactions will be used for ad personalisation.
Put this way, the changes seem fairly pedestrian in today’s digital world, where we assume our clicks, taps, and swipes are monitored for monetisation. To be sure, there are people who will baulk at such data use, but there’s a line between chatting with a sneaker shop and your friends and WhatsApp really really really wants you to know it isn’t crossing that line.
But the most important question is: Do you trust them?
Once trust is lost, it’s easy to believe that encryption and privacy promises are just hot air and that “if they want to, they will get you”.
There’s already lots of cynicism out there about organisations (not just Facebook) and their pledges of data privacy. What’s surprising is that WhatsApp – knowing the rotten reputation of its parent company – didn’t take more care in the announcement. They say that once something is out on the internet, it can never be taken back. With competitors like Signal and Telegram getting a huge boost in recent days, WhatsApp is learning that the hard way.
Not only has the backlash prompted extended clarifications from WhatsApp, the company has also delayed the impending changes from February to May. At least this saga has yielded one positive sign — proof that consumer pressure can still have some effect in the era of big tech.
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