WHATSAPP, SIGNAL, AND THE PRIVACY WARS

January 29, 2021

On Wednesday, January 6, Facebook-owned WhatsApp informed its users of an update to their terms and privacy policy. The revamped terms entirely jettison the previously existing boundaries between WhatsApp and its parent company, Facebook, confirming the long-held concern of many users that their personal data will feed Facebook’s indulgences. 

The updated privacy policy came coupled with an ultimatum: users could choose between agreeing to have WhatsApp — boasting more than 2 billion users — share their personal data with Facebook, or, alternatively, have their account deleted. 

Facebook acquired the rapidly-growing messaging platform, WhatsApp, in 2014, for nearly $22 billion — a sum further buoyed by Facebook’s rising shares amid the deal’s announcement to the public. It remains both Facebook’s largest acquisition to date, and one of the largest in Silicon Valley history. For comparison, Facebook spent a paltry $1 billion to buy the ubiquitous photo sharing platform, Instagram. 

With the new messaging platform and its user base in hand, Facebook proceeded to bolster WhatsApp’s security. Using an open-source encryption methodology developed by Signal, Facebook engineers rewrote WhatsApp’s internal end-to-end encryption. This means that WhatsApp’s servers are unable to see the users’ messages, much less share their contents with third parties. Once a message is delivered to its intended user, it is deleted from WhatsApp’s servers, though the messaging app does maintain the users’ metadata. 

According to the Apple App Store, through its various functions and features, WhatsApp collects the following metadata from users: their phone model; their phone number; the phone’s operating system; the phone’s signal strength at various times and places; the user’s time zone; the phone’s public IP address; the user’s usage frequency of the app; their purchases; their status updates; details about group chats; address booksprofile pictures; and the profile’s about information.

Trepidation surrounding WhatsApp’s privacy and security — despite its end-to-end encryption — last resurfaced in 2016, when WhatsApp users were first afforded the option of opting out from having their data shared with Facebook for targeted ads. However, as of this year, the latest terms and conditions from WhatsApp eschew that leeway, aiming to further streamline and converge WhatsApp’s social media platform with its parent, Facebook. 

Prior to rolling out their new terms and conditions, as recently as last December, the WhatsApp Privacy Policy read: “Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA. Since we started WhatsApp, we’ve aspired to build our Services with a set of strong privacy principles in mind.”

Shedding its erstwhile concerns for privacy, WhatsApp’s newly revised agreement sings a very different tune, stating, “In addition to the services offered by Facebook Inc. and Facebook Ireland Ltd, Facebook owns and operates each of the companies listed below, in accordance with their respective terms of service and privacy policies. We may share information about you within our family of companies to facilitate, support and integrate their activities and improve our services.”

The new policy rollout from WhatsApp sparked a backlash, as privacy minded users began flocking to its open-source competitor, Signal, a move that was quickly endorsed by Tesla and SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, who simply tweeted, “Use Signal.”

As noted by Business Insider, in the week following WhatsApp’s privacy policy update announcement, Signal saw a 4,200% increase in user downloads. While both apps boast end-to-end encryption, Signal’s main selling point is its independence from larger tech firms — that is, until one of them acquires it. Moreover, as first noted in a Reddit thread, by January 9, Signal ascended to the top of the App Store downloads charts in a bevy of countries including the United States, Canada, whole swaths of Europe, Asia, and South America. 

Amid Signal’s climb atop Apple’s download charts, Signal’s social media team quickly picked up on the fact that Facebook, in turn, responded by buying out spates of ads on the Apple App Store, promoting their own Messenger app any time a search for “Signal” appeared.

It was with this mounting pressure that, on January 15, WhatsApp announced a delay in enacting their revamped privacy policy. The sweeping changes to the company’s privacy policy, initially planned to take effect on February 8 were pushed back to May 15 — while refusing to announce any changes or amendments to the policy plan itself. 

As rationalized on WhatsApp’s website, the impetus behind its sharing of information with Facebook is to better serve is users: “WhatsApp works and shares information with the other Facebook Companies to receive services like infrastructure, technology, and systems that help us provide and improve WhatsApp and to keep WhatsApp and the other Facebook Companies safe and secure. When we receive services from the Facebook Companies, the information we share with them is used to help WhatsApp in accordance with our instructions.” 

As noted by Bloomberg, in the third quarter of 2020, the vast majority of Facebook’s $21.5 billion in revenue stemmed from ads. Currently, WhatsApp, with over 2-billion users, is entirely devoid of ads; in Facebook’s broader perspective, this is entirely lost revenue.

Europe, however, has been left largely unaffected by Facebook’s data sharing penchants. Bogged by reams of stringent privacy laws and regulated by GDPR Data Protection regulations, companies like Facebook face a wide array of fines on their gross annual revenues — as high as 4% — should they be found in violation of the European Union’s legal maze of privacy legislation. In 2016, as the Seattle Times reported, Facebook was found in breach of EU antitrust laws and fined $134 million for providing false and misleading information to regulators amid Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp. At the time, Facebook had claimed it was not possible to combine WhatsApp data with other services offered by their platform. 

Facebook and WhatsApp aren’t outliers in the tech world. In an era of cloud computing and machine learning, data is king. Facebook purports to collect and organize their own and WhatsApp users’ data purely for the purposes of enhancing its services and better serving its users. 

In a digitized age it is practically impossible to avoid divulging data to the tech titans. Even something as innocuous as having food delivered through Uber provides the respective firm with both your location and culinary taste — data later aggregated with millions more and put through analytical models to predict your next meal. 

Beyond its services like Gmail or Search, Google flaunts its own surveys called Opinion Rewards. Google openly asks you for your proclivities in exchange for coins to be used in Google’s own marketplace. Your habits, tastes, and interests are fodder for these tech companies’ ravenous appetite for data. Data they feed into their analytical models and use to hone targeted advertising and advance their bottom line.

Human nature has both an inherent desire for socializing, and a natural affinity for immediate convenience. This makes avoiding the covetous grasp of Silicon Valley’s most beguiling services impossible for most people. Facebook and its tech cohorts exploit this human fallibility, providing people with an ostensibly free platform to connect with friends and family, while effectively presiding over a digital farm, engineered to harvest data. Whether it’s Google, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or any of the myriad of social media platforms permeating today’s internet, if you aren’t paying for the product, you likely are the product

Originally Published on The Daily Wire