Exploring the WhatsApp conundrum in an age of privacy conscious citizens

WhatsApp and data leak with Facebook is not a new issue, but it is concerning in a society where our data is worth more than oil in a country that lacks laws to protect it
Exploring the WhatsApp conundrum in an age of privacy conscious citizens

The New Year started with the attack on the Capitol Hill in America and the following events ended with Donald Trump’s suspension from all mainstream social media. If Trump’s digital exile wasn’t enough, a new controversy soon rocked the tech world, concerning WhatsApp’s updated privacy policy. The core of the new policy is about WhatsApp’s proactive choice of sharing data with Facebook.

Mark Zuckerberg has always wanted to integrate Facebook and its acquisitions to complete his digital empire. His only hurdle was the anti-trust lawsuits challenging the open declaration of such integration. Now, in WhatsApp, the updated privacy policy is being pushed as a notice to all WhatsApp users as they are asked to accept the changed policy by February 8. With the notice served to the users, WhatsApp is moving with a ‘take it or leave it’ offer to its users because those who have still not accepted the terms will be barred from using WhatsApp after the D-day. This should be seen as the first official step in making Zuckerberg’s integration dream possible.

The new updated privacy policy garnered attention and soon spiralled into a controversy. It started to hurt WhatsApp as users started to jump ship to other messaging platforms — mainly Signal and Telegram. WhatsApp however, tried to do damage control by clarifying that the new privacy policy is focused on the business version of WhatsApp and it doesn’t affect other users.

This promise is also not well heeded by all. There is a stark difference between the earlier privacy policy from July 20 and the new one from January 4. The wording used in the new one is important. In the earlier privacy policy, WhatsApp employed a language that was clever and cunning, sugar coating their intentions. It is repeated in the new policy, as there is no clarity regarding the data collected and shared. The earlier privacy policy started with the declaration that privacy is part of their DNA, which is missing in the new policy. Clearly, the ornamentation is missing.

Scholar and author Shoshana Zuboff points out the tactic in her book: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. She notes, “The corporation’s ability to hide this rights grab depends on language as much as it does on technical methods or corporate policies of secrecy.” George Orwell once observed that euphemisms are used in politics, war, and business as instruments that “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable”.

Language is very important here. Even though WhatsApp did away with the ornamentation, there is still the unclear use of wording. In the clarification blog post, WhatsApp talks about the kind of data that it doesn’t share with the Facebook family, but remains silent about the data it does share.

Here, one should remember the EU Commission’s deliberations on the WhatsApp acquisition. They permitted it based on assurances that data flows from the two businesses would remain separate. However, this has not been the case lately. There is no proof that this is the first time WhatsApp shares data with the FB family. When Facebook acquired WhatsApp, the latter officially went on record to say that it won’t share data with the former. However, in 2016, WhatsApp started to share data with FB but users were given an option to opt-out of it. This option was only available to everyone who had signed up earlier and not for the new registrations. Now, the earlier optional aspect is now mandatory. ‘The take it or leave it’ offer shows the corruption and perversion of the power that Zuckerberg enjoys.

Zuckerberg is playing a planned game here. Amidst the pandemic, this is the right time to set the precedence. According to the data, “Over 1.4 billion video and voice calls were placed on WhatsApp on New Year’s Eve — the app’s highest ever on a single day. Facebook said that New Year’s Eve has historically been its busiest day, with a 50% spike on WhatsApp use compared to last year.” This shows the kind of leverage the application has over users. WhatsApp is unofficially people’s official messenger application.

Metadata and WhatsApp

With the recent backlash, users have now started to shift to messengers like Signal. The latter is an open-source, a non-profit messaging application. Snowden has been endorsing it for many years and lately, many, including Elon Musk, encouraged the application. Many are switching to Signal now, because the chats in WhatsApp are not protected. Yes, the chats are end-to-end encrypted but the metadata is not. Edward Snowden explained the term; (below is the extract from Snowden’s memoir: Permanent Record)

“The term’s prefix, ‘meta’, which traditionally is translated as ‘above’ or ‘beyond’, is here used in the sense of ‘about’: metadata is data about data. It is, more accurately, data that is made by data — a cluster of tags and markers that allow data to be useful. The most direct way of thinking about metadata, however, is as ‘activity data,’ all the records of all the things you do on your devices and all the things your devices do on their own. Take a phone call, for example its metadata might include the date and time of the call, the call’s duration, the number from which the call was made, the number being called, and their locations. An email’s metadata might include information about what type of computer it was generated on, where, and when, who the computer belonged to, who sent the email, who received it, where and when it was sent and received, and who if anyone besides the sender and recipient accessed it, and where and when. Metadata can tell your surveillant the address you slept at last night and what time you got up this morning. It reveals every place you visited during your day and how long you spent there. It shows who you were in touch with and who was in touch with you. It’s this fact that obliterates any government claim that metadata is somehow not a direct window into the substance of a communication. With the dizzying volume of digital communications in the world, there is simply no way that every phone call could be listened to or email could be read. Even if it were feasible, however, it still wouldn’t be useful, and anyway, metadata makes this unnecessary by winnowing the field. This is why it’s best to regard metadata not as some benign abstraction, but as the very essence of content: it is precisely the first line of information that the party surveilling you requires.

The principle of data in a data-driven business is that data wanders far and wide. Our data wanders endlessly. The FB group is a data-driven business and the new privacy policy tells the truth

There’s another thing, too: content is usually defined as something that you knowingly produce. You know what you’re saying during a phone call, or what you’re writing in an email. But you have hardly any control over the metadata you produce, because it is generated automatically. Just as it’s collected, stored, and analysed by machine, it’s made by machine, too, without your participation or even consent. Your devices are constantly communicating for you whether you want them to or not. And, unlike the humans you communicate with of your own volition, your devices don’t withhold private information or use code words in an attempt to be discreet. They merely ping the nearest cell phone towers with signals that never lie.”

The principle of data in a data-driven business is that data wanders far and wide. Our data wanders endlessly. The FB group is a data-driven business and the new privacy policy tells the truth. WhatsApp collects our metadata. In practice, this means that WhatsApp shares a lot of data with Facebook, including account information and device information. The app itself can track the user, pinpoint the user in a map without the user giving the location access to the app. This is done through IP address and phone number area codes. “WhatsApp is great for protecting the privacy of your message content,” says Johns Hopkins University cryptographer Matthew Green. “But it feels like the privacy of everything else you do is up for grabs.” This is the reality of WhatsApp.

With the backlash, the users got the chance to hunt down an app that collects minimal or no amount of data from the user. Therein came the ‘Signal phenomenon’. Even though one couldn’t compare the buzz around Signal with what was around Zoom, this pretty much was a big thing. About the Signal messenger, the man who advocated the app himself – Edward Snowden has a lot to say, “given the sudden global recognition of the need for encrypted tools and apps”. He has been involved with the design and creation of a few of these, through his work heading the Freedom of the Press Foundation — a non-profit organisation dedicated to protecting and empowering public-interest journalism in the new millennium. A major part of the organisation’s brief is to preserve and strengthen First and Fourth Amendment rights through the development of encryption technologies. To that end, the FPF financially supports Signal, an encrypted texting and calling platform created by Open Whisper Systems. They also developed SecureDrop (originally coded by the late Aaron Swartz), which is an open-source submission system that allows media organisations to securely accept documents from anonymous whistleblowers and other sources. Today, SecureDrop is available in ten languages and used by more than seventy media organisations around the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Guardian, and The New Yorker.”

Signal was around since 2010 and its reputation as a privacy-oriented messenger platform is well established.

The absence of legal regulation has obviously made us third world citizens in the universal digital space. With no legal framework out there to protect us, we are left with options like Signal messenger

The Legal Side to Privacy

Privacy these days is seen as a luxury. There is discrimination against the developing countries outside Europe regarding issues of data rights. EU with its GDPR provides the most protection on data rights and data justice. There is even a specific privacy policy in WhatsApp, especially for EU. This means that WhatsApp doesn’t share user data in EU with Facebook.

The Aadhar card issue in India and the discourse around privacy has been interesting in India, especially since we do not even have a data protection law. The one we have is still in its late deliberations stage in the Parliament committee. There are many controversies regarding the Personal Data Protection Bill (PDPB) as well. Had the data protection law or regulation been in place, this issue with WhatsApp would not have come up in the first place. Arghya Sengupta — Research Director at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy — recently told a media organisation that the issue is complicated. He said that according to Section 5 of the Personal Data Protection Bill, which was introduced by the Parliament, and which came out of the Srikrishna Committee Report, you could only use the information for purposes that are reasonably linked to the purpose for which the information was given. If that section was there, then this [the new update in WhatsApp’s privacy policy] would have been illegal. Sections like these are why users in the European Union are safe from this change. Again, there is confusion and concern in PDPB’s clauses regarding the data sharing between the state-citizen.

The absence of legal regulation has obviously made us third world citizens in the universal digital space. With no legal framework out there to protect us, we are left with options like Signal messenger. So, come February 8, it’s going to be whether we want to make that choice or not. We have a choice unlike many who would say otherwise. Should we wait for more time to a point where there wouldn’t be any choice? Just like Shoshana Zuboff ends her bestseller The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, “The Berlin Wall fell for many reasons, but above all, it was because the people of East Berlin said, ‘No more!’ We too can be the authors of many ‘great and beautiful’ new facts that reclaim the digital future as humanity’s home. No more! Let this be our declaration.”

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