Migrating users send a privacy signal to WhatsApp

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Come May 15, WhatsApp users will have to accept the company’s updated terms and conditions or lose access to the most popular messaging app in the world. This week the deadline was extended from February 8 as concern and confusion over its data collection practices mounted. 

Despite big tech’s best efforts to increase transparency in recent years, corporations like Facebook and Google have been found to secretly share customers’ private data with third-party advertisers.

It’s easy to doubt their intentions when it comes to sharing personal data with some of the most powerful companies in the world.

Whether or not you’re comfortable sharing private information with Facebook, what it is doing sails close to a violation of ethics. Not only is users’ privacy being invaded but magnates make big money by monetising personal data.

At the very least they require our permission. In 2018, Facebook “accidentally” decided to sell some users’ personal information to third-party advertisers. A New York Times investigation also revealed that Facebook shared access to users’ data with other tech firms, including Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Netflix, Spotify and Yandex. Apparently, it awarded third-party apps the ability to read users’ private messages and to see the names, contact details and activities of their friends. The upshot is that people worldwide are switching to apps like Telegram (500-million users) and Signal (20-million users).

Toby Shapshak, editor-in-chief of Stuff Magazine, writes: “At the beginning of last year, I tried to convince people to leave WhatsApp. I dragged all my friends and family over to Telegram.”

If tech fundis are doing it, shouldn’t we all? There’s no question that tech giants depend on a new type of currency: personal data. That’s what Facebook has increasingly pursued for years, with the help of its social media platforms Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.  WhatsApp will push users off its platform completely if they do not agree to share more personal data.

Once its conditions are accepted, WhatsApp — which has 2-billion users — will automatically share user phone numbers, entire contact lists (numbers and names), profile names and pictures, status messages, when a user was last online, and diagnostic data collected from app logs with Facebook.

Surprisingly, this is just a fraction of what the app actually collects. Facebook SA disagrees with its own terms of service, published on the WhatsApp website. A Facebook SA spokesperson says: “There will be no change in data sharing with Facebook for nonbusiness chats and account information, and with regard to business messaging, we are not mandating users to share data.”

But it is. In the pop-up notice, it states: “After this date, you’ll need to accept these updates to continue using WhatsApp.”

In addition, the updated privacy policy is applicable to all users, as it is their data, contact lists, status updates and diagnostic data that will be sent to Facebook servers. In fact, according to the Apple Store, WhatsApp is sharing far more than the few data sources noted in its terms of service. Apple requires apps to state clearly what data the user shares with them in its app store. According to Apple Store’s listing, WhatsApp shares 16 data points.

So what about the alternative messaging apps? Surely they, too, share user data with a server somewhere, where it is collected and used? They do indeed.

Facebook Messenger collects 32 data points from each user. These include search history, browsing history, health and fitness, payment info and audio data.

It’s unclear how Facebook gathers data on a user’s health and fitness, but according to Apple Store’s logs, it’s included in the data points Facebook collects. The most prominent alternative to WhatsApp, Telegram, collects far less user data. All that makes its way to Telegram’s server is your contact info, contacts and user ID.

But there are questions over Telegram’s security. In recent weeks, South Africans have found that one of Telegram’s features allows easy access to illegal traders in sex, drugs and, since the level 3 Covid lockdown, alcohol.

These groups can easily be accessed through Telegram’s “groups nearby” feature that uses user location to display community groups in the area. It’s especially worrisome as many children have downloaded and accessed the app. Luckily, this feature isn’t active on startup, and users have to allow location permission to access publicly available people or groups in the app. Disabling location permission won’t affect the app’s usability, however.

And it’s a good idea to keep location permission off for most apps, except for Maps or Waze. 

Some users are opting for Signal, the lesser-known but certainly more secure messaging app. After WhatsApp’s announcement, the short-lived richest man in the world, Elon Musk, took to Twitter to slam Facebook for its new privacy policy and advised people to choose Signal instead.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey retweeted it, then Signal tweeted that it was working hard to handle the surge of new users. In a few days, Signal became the world’s most downloaded app. There’s good reason for this. Signal shares zero data points with its servers, according to its Apple Store listing, not even user phone numbers, user names or crash reports.

If anything, WhatsApp’s policy change has shone a light on the world of messaging apps and the need for other options. Choice increases autonomy and competition. If you’re happy sharing data with Facebook, the new terms may not affect you much. Switching shouldn’t pose any direct threat to users, as long as they’re aware of what data is being shared. 

This article first appeared in the Financial Mail.

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Digital Editor at Stuff. Nevermind the fancy title, I like writing about things that are cool. Like games, gadgets and sometimes even software. Depending on how cool it is.