Latest WhatsApp policy update highlights the Hobson’s choice that is big tech

Hobson’s choice is a phrase used to describe a choice between what is on offer or nothing at all and in the last years, big tech companies have given users that exact choice when it comes to accepting terms and conditions.

During the final week of my leave I have been bombarded by one singular question – Is this WhatsApp policy update a scam.

For those who have no idea what I’m on about, on 4th January, WhatsApp users were met with an update to the service’s privacy policy and since then folks have been worried.

The update seemingly gives Facebook unprecedented access to WhatsApp user data which many have taken to mean that Facebook will know even more about you than it did before.

Before we dive into the concerns, we should point out that Facebook has owned WhatsApp since 2014. While the plan might’ve been to keep WhatsApp independent at the outset, it’s clear that times have changed.

So then, what seems to be the issue?

By far the biggest issue we’ve seen vocalised by users is the belief that all of their data will be shared with Facebook and this is where confusion breeds fear.

While some data will be shared with Facebook this data seemingly won’t include your dankest memes or genitalia shots. WhatsApp lays out exactly how it relays messages in its Privacy Policy.

Further to this, Facebook told MyBroadband last week that this update regarding data sharing was only for chats with Facebook Business chats.

But it’s still worth looking at how WhatsApp gathers data.

“We do not retain your messages in the ordinary course of providing our Services to you. Instead, your messages are stored on your device and not typically stored on our servers. Once your messages are delivered, they are deleted from our servers,” reads the updated WhatsApp policy.

There are two exceptions to that rule. Undelivered messages are stored on WhatsApp servers for 30 days and if after those 30 days have elapsed without delivery, the message is deleted. WhatsApp also stores media “temporarily” so that it can be forwarded along more efficiently. This media is encrypted the firm says.

But, Facebook will be privy to some information including:

  • hardware model
  • operating system information
  • battery level
  • signal strength
  • app version
  • browser information
  • mobile network
  • connection information (including phone number, mobile operator or ISP)
  • language and time zone
  • IP address
  • device operations information
  • identifiers including identifiers unique to Facebook Company Products associated with the same device or account

And this is the point worth being concerned over. The above is a lot of information and because much of it doesn’t change that often, it becomes easier to be identified by a firm.

This means that Facebook becomes more alluring to advertisers and something about that prospect is concerning.

For example, with access to your operating system information, battery level and mobile network, you might start seeing a lot more advertising for smartphones if Facebook groups in an advertising segment along with people who have battery levels that deplete quickly.

Is this a bad thing? Perhaps not but given that its Facebook that is siphoning up this data, there is more than enough reason to be concerned.

As we’ve seen with the likes of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, bad actors can access Facebook user data improperly with Facebook being none-the-wiser. This coupled with an increase in cybercrime over the years is mightily concerning.

The problem we see is simply how much data Facebook has on users and the fact that with all of this data, privacy is dead for anybody using any Facebook products.

The alternatives

Since the WhatsApp update was published we’ve noted an influx of users to the likes of Telegram and we suspect the same is happening for Signal.

These two services are both independent instant messaging platforms and each prides itself on user privacy.

However, we urge you to read the privacy policy for Signal, Telegram and WhatsApp together. These are not as girthy as you might think and all three provide a decent amount of perspective on how data is shared.

If anything, these three policies will show you just how much data is collected about you between the three services.

For instance, in the Signal privacy policy it is stated, “If you use other Third-Party Services like YouTube, Spotify, Giphy, etc. in connection with our Services, their Terms and Privacy Policies govern your use of those services.”

This means that if you share a YouTube video through Signal, YouTube may still know who shared that video and then ultimately who viewed it.

The point we hope to drive home here is that policies and terms and conditions are important and help you understand whether a service is worth using or not.

Privacy or features

We have a choice to make as regards what is happening with WhatsApp.

We can have features such as being able to wire money to your mates from an instant messenger or you can have privacy.

Unfortunately as it stands, it doesn’t appear as if one can have both and there is a damn good reason for that – money.

At its release in 2009, WhatsApp was a messaging service. It was reliable and kept users coming back because of that reliability but it was just a messaging platform.

Fast forward to 2021 and WhatsApp is becoming a marketplace, a contact centre, a social network, a calling service and so much more. All of this takes time and money to build out and unfortunately for users, in pursuit of these features, privacy slowly started dying out.

You can disable location services on WhatsApp, but then you can’t share your location. You can prevent WhatsApp from using your camera, but then you can’t snap photos to share or conduct video calls.

You as the user are tasked with deciding what features you want to use but this comes with the caveat of having to share your data for those features.

What has become clear to us over the years is that Silicon Valley has used convenience to slowly whittle away privacy. Whether this was intentional is a question worth asking from a legal perspective.

Right now though, we as users have a lot more power than we appear to realise. For one, you can simply leave WhatsApp. Wild as that idea is, the likes of Signal and Telegram have been around for many years and now that folks disagree with WhatsApp they are moving.

Maybe this mass exodus of users will force Facebook to change its tune, or maybe it won’t but it is certainly worth trying to force Facebook’s hand and show Silicon Valley that we want privacy, not another swing at disappearing stories.


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