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.
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.
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.”
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. 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.”