WhatsApp Data Privacy: Should you be concerned and consider alternatives?

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WhatsApp took birth in 2009 with a subscription-based revenue model. However, the company ended the same in 2016 stating, it “really doesn’t work that well in a lot of countries, and we just don’t want people to think that their communications…with the world will be cut off.” WhatsApp co-founder Mr. Jan Koum added many of its users “don’t have a debit or credit card number and they worried they’d lose access to their friends and family after their first year.” The alternative was to charge businesses for the user data and letting them contact their customers directly.

In the official blog post, the company professed its decision — “Starting this year, we will test tools that allow you to use WhatsApp to communicate with businesses and organizations that you want to hear from. That could mean communicating with your bank about whether a recent transaction was fraudulent, or with an airline about a delayed flight. We all get these messages elsewhere today – through text messages and phone calls – so we want to test new tools to make this easier to do on WhatsApp, while still giving you an experience without third-party ads and spam“.

But by then, it was already a subsidiary of the social media giant, Facebook. And the latter has been making changes to the app — some good (end-to-end encryption and visual overhaul), while some controversial, if not evil, per se.

You are here probably because of the hullabaloo surrounding the recent WhatsApp’s revelation of its Terms and Privacy Policy update (dated January 04, 2021). The key changes are related to:

  • WhatsApp’s services and how they process that data.
  • How business can use Facebook (its parent company) hosted services to store and manage their WhatsApp chats.
  • How WhatsApp partners with Facebook to offer integration across the Facebook company products.

The ruckus has been regarding how Facebook is using our data for purposes that we didn’t sign up for. And unlike before now, it is not giving the user the freedom to choose (Sorry, no opt-out this time 🙁). Earlier, the fine print had said, “If you are an existing user, you can choose not to have your WhatsApp account information shared with Facebook to improve your Facebook ads and product experiences.” That’s been redacted out now.

ALSO READ: Facebook to add In-chat Shopping feature in WhatsApp

So, for some users, this might very well seem like a bait and hook affair. But, in its defense, Facebook has clarified that “The update does not change WhatsApp’s data-sharing practices with Facebook and does not impact how people communicate privately with friends or family… WhatsApp remains deeply committed to protecting people’s privacy.”

As I put it in a previous para, this is in an essence, a disclosure. Whatsapp notes, “Our Privacy Policy helps explain our data practices, including the information we process to provide our Services.” In other words, it has been sharing user metadata with Facebook since 2016. So, most of us (in billions) have had our data with Facebook already.

Now, the question arises, what is this data? And how will Facebook be using it?

Data collected by WhatsApp

Here are the data WhatsApp collects from you:

Source: Apple App Store’s Privacy nutrition label

So, by accepting the permission-seeking pop-ups, you give the following details about yourself to Whatsapp (and in a way to Facebook):

  • Your profile info such as name and mobile phone number.
  • Your location (if you give access)
  • Device And Connection Information: 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, and identifiers
  • User behavior: How you use WhatsApp Services, How long you use the app, your closest contacts as with whom you converse with the most, your WhatsApp settings, how you interact with others using WhatsApp (including when you interact with a business), and the time, frequency, and duration of your activities and interactions), log files, and diagnostic, crash, website, and performance logs and reports.
  • Transactions And Payments Data (WhatsApp Pay)
  • And a slew of other data from third-party sources.

WhatsApp alternatives: How much data do they collect?

In contrast, here’s how much data the rivals of WhatsApp collect from you:

Data CollectedDevice ID
User ID
Advertising Data
Purchase History
Coarse Location
Phone Number
Email Address
Product Interaction
Crash Data
Performance Data
Other Diagnostic Data
Payment Info
Customer Support
Product Interaction
Other User Content
Contact Info
User ID
Just your phone number and that too in an unidentifiable (encrypted) format.

So, Signal is definitely a privacy champ and is the reason why everybody from privacy advocates, tech experts, and influencers are urging to use Signal instead. But should you?

Should you switch over to Signal or Telegram?

The answer is both yes and no. It depends on how much value your data privacy. But, if you ask me, I believe convenience matters more than privacy for me. A messaging platform is pointless unless everyone you want to communicate with is available on it. For example, if we take the case of digital payment apps, there is not a single ubiquitous option. The same is simply a no-no when it comes to instant messaging services. Also, Facebook is amassing metadata that does not directly identify the user. WhatsApp claims, this is done “to operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support, and market our Services.” It is very well aiming for a WeChat-like platform.

In Mark Zuckerberg’s words, the goal is “interoperability” which means all its apps and services will be tightly integrated. And for this to work, the company needs cross-platform data-sharing. So, however disconcerting it might seem for us users, this is an understandable and inevitable move from a business perspective. Every digital business (apps and services) depends on user data to serve better products and not every app divulges its data-gathering activity. Facebook did and for what it’s worth, discourse around data privacy has spiked.

ALSO READ: Facebook Having Second Thoughts About Whatsapp Ads

The next move (albeit a late one) has to be from the Government’s end. Just like GDPR stops Facebook from implementing this update in European countries, India should have proper legal checks against such Big Tech moves. The Digital Protection Bill, which should’ve been law by now, could’ve prevented it. Section 5 of the Personal Data Protection Bill, states that app owners can only use the information for purposes that are reasonably linked to the purpose for which the information was given.

Well, it’s never too late to mend. And rather than users switching between apps (which could very well turn another WhatsApp in the future), the legal regulations can be the real panacea. We, the user just have to be smart in app-usage and data-sharing habits.

Do you agree? If yes, you have time till February 8 to accept the new WhatsApp update. Else, check out any of its competition mentioned above and let us know how was your experience.

Vasan G.S.Vasan G.S.
An inquisitive mind who spends a big chunk of the day keenly tracking every emerging detail and is responsible for quickly passing on important developments to Smartprix followers. He loves to stay in his bubble scripting his destiny involving amazing technology and people with good character, passion, and brilliance.

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