This has led to a backlash with many users migrating to alternate platforms. A survey by LocalCircles finds that WhatsApp is likely to see 15% of users in India move away, while 36% will reduce usage drastically.
To clear its stand, the Facebook-owned messaging app has released a clarification explaining that the policy update doesn’t compromise the privacy of messages with friends and family. It also says that the update includes changes related to business accounts on WhatsApp which too are optional for users.
The reason is Facebook’s business model. “Facebook has only one business model surveillance fueled Ad-sales, although this change in the policy keeps end to end encryption sacrosanct, that is, nobody can still read the content of the messages on WhatsApp including Facebook but from now on in the name of interoperability far more metadata will be shared between Facebook and WhatsApp,” says technology lawyer Mishi Choudhary, legal director at SFLC New York (Software Freedom Law Centre).
In the third quarter 2020, Facebook’s revenue was $21.47 billion, almost all of which came from ads, and there are none in WhatsApp. “The rationale is that Facebook group wants to serve more targeted ads to people on Facebook, Instagram by knowing more about their usage habits on WhatsApp and enable payments in WhatsApp for items that were clicked through Instagram ads.,” she says.
She adds that this has been forced by Apple’s labeling policy for all apps in App store. “Facebook was recently forced by Apple to provide a privacy “nutritional label” on its iOS app which told us about 100 different pieces of data that may be collected, many of which are directly linked to user profiles, including health and fitness data, “sensitive info” and search histories.”
“The likely result of that is Facebook and Instagram will be able to use data about how people use WhatsApp to target ads/services to them and made inferences about their behaviour. And, in some sense, what this is doing is integrating WhatsApp even deeper within the Facebook and Instagram ecosystem,” says Nigam.
“It is important to understand that Facebook as a company is built around the business model of advertising, specifically of targeting ads and has clearly declared its intention to control the entire journey of a customer and the brand: the customer sees the ad on Facebook and Instagram and pays on WhatsApp. Its new payment gateway WhatsApp Pay will strengthen its position in retail and commerce, on both the advertising front and also the payment front. Earlier, WhatsApp’s Chief Operating Officer Matt Idema himself had said that, “Instagram and Facebook are the storefront. WhatsApp is the cash register.”
It is also interesting to note WhatsApp has a different policy for European and non-European users where EU citizens are better protected than their Indian counterparts. “A comparison of these two policies has revealed that for non-European regions, this data might be used for the Facebook Companies’ own purposes, most likely to improve its targeting of ads, which is specifically prohibited in the European policy,” says Nigam.
CLAIM — WhatsApp cannot see your shared location and neither can Facebook
Tripti Jain of Internet Democracy Project says, “When you share your location with someone on WhatsApp, it is sent as an encrypted message and hence is not shared. In that sense, this claim may be correct, however WhatsApp collects your location data at various instances; when the location service is turned on the phone, WhatsApp is taking your IP address and your location. For certain services it is also using your location even when the location feature is turned off. This part is missing from their explanation.”
CLAIM — You can download your data
Tripti Jain says, “When I download my WhatsApp data, all I can see is what data does WhatsApp have about me but it is not enough. A user should also know what WhatsApp has been doing with my data, whether that they have shared it with other apps or not, but the current feature fails to provide that.”
She explains, “By offering users to download what data WhatsApp has about users, WhatsApp aims to make users believe that they have user rights and autonomy over their data that has been shared with WhatsApp. However, if one reads the fine print, all that users can download and see is what data is with WhatsApp, this is incomplete information.”
To enable user autonomy and control, a user should be able to learn what data does WhatsApp has, has it been shared further, if yes with whom, and for what purpose, how long will that data be stored among other things. “Unless, this ability is provided, this feature that allows users to download their data is nothing but merely an illusive practice in the name of privacy,” she says.
So, is the brouhaha over moving to alternative apps like Signal legitimate? “Absolutely! Anyone who cares even a little bit about their privacy should abandon all Facebook products,” she says.