May 20, 2021

6 min read

Should we worry about WhatsApp’s new privacy updates?

Illustration by Rafika Aulia

Earlier this year, WhatsApp announced an update to its application policy where WhatsApp can share user information with its parent company, Facebook. Initially, WhatsApp gave a deadline for its users to accept the policy until February 8th. But WhatsApp extended it until May 15th.

Why is this policy update so controversial? That is because the policy will interfere with user privacy. In this policy, Whatsapp will share user data with other applications owned by Facebook, such as Messenger and Instagram, with the aim of integrating them all to make it easier for users’ businesses.

Previously WhatsApp has shared data with Facebook, but with this new policy, Facebook will be able to access data further than before, including detailed WhatsApp payments and transactions. Even though WhatsApp claims that the user’s conversations and calls remain encrypted. However, requests to access further data on the pretext of showing relevant advertisements aroused suspicion among its users.

It’s very normal for companies to update terms and conditions of applications, apps and services, and even websites; we get that every single day. But the difference is that this has been positioned as a kind of ultimatum to users. So that dissuades people from looking more deeply into it. Also, there’s been a lot of noise around the extent of permissions that you have to get. So the combination of those two has created a lot of fear. And some of that fear is justified, but some are overblown. Justifiably, people are concerned about the extent of information that cannot be collected from you via WhatsApp. But it’s not the information itself that’s so significant. It’s the fact that that information can be combined with the information that Facebook is collecting about you. So on WhatsApp, for example, already, obviously, Whatsapp has to know what your contact number is. And issues like even signal strength, which sounds like arbitrary elements to measure, must have been measured all along. Now that is part of the new measurements or the new data that’s being collected. But included in that is issues or areas like your time zone, your mobile operator, your internet service provider, your battery level, on your phone, even so, a range of arbitrary information, but when put together starts giving a picture of your habits, your behavior and the like.

Now that again, in itself is not as serious as much seen, but not a combination that with your behavior and your activities on Facebook. And suddenly you start getting a detailed, in-depth picture of a person’s profile, even their personality, you can tell a lot about someone’s personality, by the extent to which they allow the phone, for example, to die down or for the battery to die, or how much time they spend on the phone, for example. So all of that information is potentially going to be aggregated and analyzed and packaged in order for advertisers to be able to target people better. Facebook has made a comment that it’s about business use of WhatsApp, but how do we know when we are engaging with the business and when we not? It all becomes one long continuum of usage, and people aren’t distinguishing between the different kinds of usage.

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Should people really be concerned about this privacy policy?

The content of your messages is not something to be concerned about unless you’re involved in criminal activity, and law enforcement requires the owners of these apps to divulge the content of messages. So it is possible for the content to be accessed, but only in extreme circumstances. Broadly speaking, the content of any WhatsApp message is encrypted and cannot be read by anybody else. Especially not by Facebook, simply to target advertising. So nobody’s going to be reading your messages. That is an overblown fear. But we do have a right to be concerned about the extent of information that is now being together in order for advertisers to target us. And bear in mind that advertisers targeting us on whether it’s Google or Facebook is not only about selling products, but it’s also about pushing political messages. And this is part of the scandal around Facebook in the Cambridge analytic, a debacle, where information was collected that was not supposed to be collected, and then use to target people in ways that were not supposed to be targeted, or that not supposed to be is what Facebook says ideally, is the situation but in practice, people are able to exploit loopholes and also exploit information that Facebook makes available to advertisers to be able to make populate, not just the buying habits, but also their thinking and voting habits.

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To stay or to go? What should people do?

It’s a couple of issues here. If all of your contacts are on WhatsApp and by leaving WhatsApp, you lose touch with all of your contacts, then it doesn’t really make sense. And if you are able to persuade everyone, you know, if you should also go over to a Signal or Telegram where it makes sense for you to ditch WhatsApp completely. However, what you can do is try to start using it less, bring in Telegram, bring in Signal, and see which of your contacts are using those. And as far as you can, move your communication over to those apps. So the idea would be that you start reducing your reliance on WhatsApp. And that also encourages other people to reduce their reliance on WhatsApp. But what it also means that less and less of your behavior can be aggregated by Facebook in terms of who you talk to when you talk and the condition of your phone, for that matter.

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With the privacy violation that we appear to face, how can we protect our information?

Your privacy is being exposed on almost every website that you use. So, one of the things that you can do is using something called incognito mode on a browser. So most browsers have this mode, where when you select incognito mode, especially right-clicking on the icon and choosing the incognito mode, it means that no cookies are being planted on your browser. Cookies are little pieces of information that tell advertisers what you’ve been doing and where you’ve been going and allow them to target you. Also, constantly clear the cookies on your browser on your phone as well as on your computer. That is probably the best thing you can do. And then try to start moving your communication to the more secure browsers (instant messaging apps ) like Signal and Telegram which had more concern on user’s data and privacy.

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Contributor: Abdul Hamid