WhatsApp: The privacy fiasco with Facebook

BlackBerry Messenger was the previous era of embodiment of instant messaging. However, it was too late to shift towards developing cross-platform solutions, and WhatsApp had a tipping point in their favor to gain users.

Eventually, it has faded into irrelevance. WhatsApp became the new normal. It would be onerous to track the changes from their subscription model and their faux promises of keeping “medium ad-free”.

I started noticing the incessant data collection of social media networks around 2014-15 and increasingly difficult means for counter-measures. However, in parallel, the usage of Facebook and WhatsApp had grown exponentially since then (along with the surprising mass acceptance of Twitter in the medical fraternity). Their data collection and privacy fiascos became more abrasive over the years that most users have simply ignored the warning signs. The networks made these changes possible through a gradual process while eroding the individual privacy under the garb of “connecting with friends and family” (and lofty PR statements about upholding the “security” of their users).

I think the inflection point came in here when Facebook made their intent clear for data collection through a change in their “privacy policy” recently:

Infamous terms and conditions to sell your soul to Facebook

I was well aware of the metadata being given out to Facebook, but grabbing the users private conversations is a different level of pig headedness altogether. Metadata is fine- everyone does it. Private conversations? Why are you even consenting to offer them to these companies?

According to privacy tools, here’s what Facebook and WhatsApp collect: (I have highlighted the most sensitive aspects).

Third-Party Advertising, Purchase History, Financial Info, Precise Location, Coarse Location, Physical Address, Email, Name, Phone Number, Other User Contact Info, Contacts, Photos or Videos, Gameplay Content, Other User Content, Search History, Browsing History, User ID, Device ID, Product Interaction, Advertising Data, Other Usage Data, Crash Data, Performance Data, Other Diagnostics Data, Other Data Types, Developer’s, Advertising or Marketing, Health, Fitness, Payment Info, Sensitive Info, Product Personalisation, Credit Info, Other Financial Info, Emails or Text Messages.

Break those chains!

Basically, anything and everything you do on your personal device.

This business model is difficult for most of the users to grasp. In the “attention economy“, you pay the companies your “attention”. Therefore, they emphasise on the repeated notifications.

Here’s something interesting from Kevin Kelly:

This super-distribution system has become the foundation of our economy and wealth. The instant reduplication of data, ideas, and media underpins all the major economic sectors in our economy, particularly those involved with exports — that is, those industries where the US has a competitive advantage. Our wealth sits upon a very large device that copies promiscuously and constantly.

A video podcast (10 years ago!) explains this well:

Therefore, these megacorporations gain value from your attention (which has become a scarce resource) and earn money out of your interaction on your platform. They use this to serve advertisements.

Why is this troublesome for WhatsApp?

Advertisements is not an issue- it is relatively easy to block them using system-wide ad blockers like AdGuard (I use Android and Desktop versions) with blocklists specifically geared to block every Facebook domain that pops up. WhatsApp represents a gated, walled garden where information flow happens between individuals in “private”. If the relentless information scoping takes place for algorithms to slot and dice advertising ID’s, they are tying up your information to you- permanently and irrevocably. It is troublesome because it opens the doors for blurring the lives between what you say in private and your public persona.

End users don’t realise it now, but this will have a pervasive “chilling effect”. Real time communication between private individuals- spouses, family members, friends- will all be hostage to invisible algorithms designed to target you and build extensive psychological profiles. Financial information (including credit scoring) will be up for grabs for the financial institutions (and for the government to have a blanket surveillance with plausible deniability). Geo-location has also emerged as a lucrative option to target users. “Health and fitness” data to assess your probabilities of falling sick as there is more money to make if companies sell “cures”, rather than preventing you to fall sick. Predictive algorithms will become better. Browsing history will be up for grabs too- both for the advertisers (and the governments)

Your personal pictures (shot in the privacy confines and shared with your loved ones) will become the property of a third party (and advertisers).

Beware of the attention grabbing!

Healthcare insurers will raise your premiums and hide behind the opaque walls. Your organisation will find even more impervious ways to track your location. For those self employed, algorithms will determine “what sells” to your competitor’s advantage and depreciate your posts gradually. Amazon does it in its marketplace. What will stop Facebook from copying this?

Most users cannot fathom the vastness of the data collection, labelling, sorting and aggregations that it is impossible to talk them out of their perceived “bubbles”. This ossification of ideas around their networks and the fear of missing out on the “intelligible conversations” adds the inertial weight to shift towards better privacy respecting platforms like Telegram (and Threema).

Are you sure you want to part away with ALL of this data? Think again.

The unholy alliance of telecom service providers and the social networks, bodes ill for the net neutrality. Over time, it kills the diversity of ideas and fashions users to believe their own invisible echo chambers. This subtle but definitive stance of the social media networks, over time, plays into the psychological babbles and prevents end users from exercising their own judgements leading to a loss of the functional autonomy. These are relentless churns which are going to play out through the widening cracks of ineffective regulation and falling hostage to incessant lobbying by social media companies in the power corridors.

In the rapidly developing news cycle (and the falling attention in the attention economy), it is difficult to miss the subtexts. While the users have suddenly realized “privacy alternatives” and it became Twitter trend for some time, it would still be a twitter trend with the users looking for the next big fix to get “outraged” about. Once the PR machinery decides that they are getting too much flak, they will invent a new trend instead, and this memory fades into irrelevance.

Can regulations help to stem the incessant data collection? Yes, partially. Europe forbids blanket collection. However, “European like” regulations are not always possible.

Make choices wisely!

Choice. It is the choice you make, consciously. Now.

Before you turn into a functional automaton with your free rights being destroyed forever.

Before they take away your civil liberties.

Before they micro-target you for advertising or worse still, psychological manipulations.

Freedoms are hard fought. Don’t let yours get frittered away.

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