WhatsApp takes its privacy scraping too far


WhatsApp just made it really easy for me to write my first column of the year. Because it wants to change the terms and conditions of its service, WhatsApp now requires users to provide a whole host of information about themselves, their contacts, and location. All of this must be agreed to before 8 February or users would lose access to WhatsApp.

Readers of this column know I have long feared and worried about the extensive power that Facebook has over the billions of people who use its messaging platforms.

At the beginning of last year, I tried to convince people to leave WhatsApp. I dragged all my friends and family over to Telegram.

But WhatsApp is the dominant messaging platform in the world, with over 2 billion users. Everybody and anybody are on WhatsApp. That alone gives it a network effect that vastly increases its power and ability to connect you to just about anybody. However, Facebook wants to store all of the WhatsApp data on its servers, it says, and therefore wants permission to store such data.

Many people, especially those already on Facebook, say that the social giant already has all of that info on us. I’m sure it does but how much of that did Facebook collect without our permission? And now it wants its users to legitimise that, let’s call it, accumulation of that data.

Remember this is Facebook, which offered its users an additional security feature by using your mobile number and then simply added that number to that large individual dataset they have about all of us – known as “shadow profiles”.

European competition watchdogs have sued Facebook multiple times for not adhering to the terms of the WhatsApp sale, and continued attempts to integrate the data from both services.

Facebook – like Google – is an evil corporation that makes tens of billions of dollars of profit every single year based on all this individualised data that allows tech firms to sell highly personalised advertising to its own users.

I suspect Facebook is rushing this integration so it can argue it cannot separate its services, when the US government’s antitrust cases kick off this year.

“Accept the terms or else” is kinda like the Godfather making you an offer you can’t refuse. Because it is. If you want to continue to use WhatsApp, you have to surrender even more of your personal data and privacy – and that of people in your contacts. I may refuse to give WhatsApp and Facebook this access, but what about someone else who has my details in their contacts? What happens if they stored my home address?

The ultimate upshot is that it gives me the ideal excuse to no longer indulge in using WhatsApp. I cannot abide by Facebook’s unreasonable demands especially as we know its monopolistic practices, and data hoarding nature those details will be used at some point to make money for Facebook. If you get something for free always remember you are the product.

This article first appeared in the Financial Mail.



About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."