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The WhatsApp Privacy Question

With Facebook recently changing its terms and privacy policy for all its WhatsApp users outside of the EU, it seems to have made a lot of people angry.

When it comes to (your) data privacy and what this update means to non-EU WhatsApp’s users, in the end, I believe it does not mean much difference to what existed before! and if you are ok with targeted Marketing then there is no need to do anything different.

Facebook/WhatsApp just put the spotlight on how personal information is being crossed reference and used for marketing purposes. It happened before but it seems more people this time around are more receptive about the implication of such practice and thus it is creating a wave of exode to over more privacy conscious messaging platforms.

Let's ask ourselves 3x basic questions about this situation:
1. What can WhatsApp see now?
WhatsApp cannot see the content of the messages sent through its platform (allegedly, but let’s assume that’s true).
However it can see other things, such as who you are sending and receiving messages from, your geo location, and who you are (Name, phone number, profile picture, etc) and also (especially) any external links you click from your messages… they may not see the URL within the message, but once it is “clicked” they would see where you go to.

2. How is WhatsApp using this information now?
Apparently they are not using it today for marketing purposes.

3. How is WhatsApp planning to use this information from February 2021?
It seems they are planning to use information collected from other sources (i.e.: Facebook and other social media sites/user databases) WITH the information they are already collecting on WhatsApp (who you send the messages to, your location, your name, phone number, etc) to then enrich the marketing profile they already have on “people” and generate increased advertisement revenue through targeted marketing.

With that in mind we can assume these upcoming changes will therefore have the following impact:
Changes in WhatsApp:
You may now receive advertisement messages in Whatsapp or product placement, suggested “contacts” to add, etc.

Changes outside of Whatsapp:
You may get adverts based on who you have interacted with on Whatsapp, the group you belong to, the places you have sent/received messages from, etc.

So, speaking about buying a new iPad on WhatsApp may not mean you will receive an Apple advert about iPads when you go to Facebook or Amazon.
But speaking about a new iPad to people who are Apple fans on Whatsapp (because of their facebook profile, their linkedin liked pages, their tweeter follow-ups, etc) as well as the links they sent you and that you clicked on, means you might see an apple advert for their new products when you go to Facebook or Amazon, especially if you are doing so from an old iPad model...
The idea is that this change of policy provides Facebook/WhatsApp yet another set of points of references to add to people’s profiles.
(Taking an exemple involving Apple is not a coincidence... all companies use marketing data, that includes "Privacy Saint" Apple!)

The risk here, in my view, is not so much a risk related to the leakage of your data and the potential stealing of corporate secrets, but an increase invasion of *your* privacy through targeted marketing. This can have serious consequences as targeted marketing can be used not just to sell ßiPad or shoes, but also for political campaign, opinion change efforts, etc.

Having said all that, the flip side of the coin is that you will see adverts for products you may be actually interested in…

The main alternatives at the moment are:

  • Signal
  • Telegram

  • Signal seems to be the most private one with no plan (at the moment) to use any of your data. This is recommended by Snowden, Musk, etc.
    Telegram, is secure too… but there are rumors they may soon need to make money and this could mean using user’s data. Also, it comes from Russia, so something to bear in mind.

    To conclude, what is the answer to the WhatsApp Privacy question:
    "Should you stop using WhatsApp because of the upcoming changes?"
    For private use, it may be a good opportunity to move to Signal as many more of your contacts may now have an account on that platform!
    For Corporate use, there is another question you should be answering first: Should you authorise 3rd party messaging apps altogether? as they can enable covert data leakage from employees/hackers and in some companies all conversations must also be recorded by law. In those instances, 3rd party messaging app like WhatsApp or Signal should not be permitted and instead the use of something like MS Team is the only option.

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