Why You Should Take WhatsApp’s Latest Scandal Seriously

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We need to communicate with each other. We must. Smartphones and all the apps available on them enable us to do that a lot easier than we were previously capable of doing. The market is flush with options. Developers upload their latest creations to the Play Store, the Apple Store – whatever store you use – and promote their benefits: how they differ and how they are better than other competitors. Yet, despite all this, we stick to a few: Facebook Messenger, Twitter and Instagram DMs, Snapchat, and WhatsApp.

This is for practical reasons, obviously. You can’t have a different app to talk to every one of your contacts. However, there is a monopoly. Facebook and Google have been charged with anti-competitive practices which further solidifies the monopolies of major corporations and Silicon Valley giants. As such, our options are actually quite limited.

In recent years, scandals have plagued these same companies. Anti-competitive charges have caused Google and Apple a little bit of grief, accused of making it difficult for publishers and developers to grow their apps via their stores. Another, though, which routinely causes more direct woes and worries for consumers themselves, surrounds data privacy.

Facebook-Cambridge Analytica is one of the biggest stories of any news over the last few years, let alone tech-related. Before that and since then, there seems to be a news story every week about how a hack has happened, how there’s been a leak, or how one company is selling data to another without the explicit consent of their customers.

It’s frequent and hard to keep track of. It’s not a surprise that average citizens and customers have become desensitized to, a little bit bored of these reports. They think that they don’t have anything to hide, so what’s the harm? Others, however, are having enough, especially of Facebook and their products.

Customers Taking the Initiative

It’s important to consider that this WhatsApp story, which will be detailed soon, takes place in a world which is seeing an increasing number of customers take interest in their privacy, and using solutions outside of institutions and established methods to take control of their experience as a customer.

A good example of this is customers at online casinos. While the casino sites themselves do not give any reason to be distrusted, customers, if they are to use the site long-term, have to register banking details. This is sensitive data. As such, they are finding ways to avoid giving over such details which can access their main account which holds the majority of their money.

Fintech solutions have helped with this. Not only are they helping customers avoid the issue of not being able to access a brick-and-mortar bank to organise their finances, but they can also provide a buffer, act as a middleman, between a company – to continue our example, online casinos – and a customer. E-wallets are one option, where customers are able to transfer money to a separate space and then use this as a means to make transactions, meaning bank details aren’t registered to an online casino. Gamers can read reviews on dedicated comparison sites like OLBG and see which e-wallets are accepted, as certain establishments will favour the more standardised options like Neteller or Skrill, for instance – though others can be more flexible. This can often be a key factor in a customer’s decision making process.

Despite this pattern, are customer’s downloading other messaging apps because they’re interested in privacy in general or because of WhatsApp’s Facebook connection?

WhatsApp and Facebook

WhatsApp updated their terms of use and privacy policy which users received a pop-up about. The update was primarily to detail its practices for how business users can store their messages and communications. However, within the policy, users noticed the messaging app had removed a passage about opting out of having WhatsApp account information shared with their parent company Facebook. Some customers always cynically assumed this non-consensual data sharing was standard practice, hidden in jargon and smoke within the small print and PR, and that this update was an accidental slip of the truth.

They are right and wrong. The removal of that passage doesn’t change a single thing for WhatsApp’s data-sharing practices. Since 2016, they’ve been sharing user information and metadata with Facebook. Its billion users had thirty days to opt-out of some of that sharing. If any user did do this, in that timeframe, WhatsApp did and will continue to honour that decision. The billion new users gained since then didn’t have a choice. Data such as a user’s phone number, usage statistics, device identifiers, language, and a number of other things, can be shared with Facebook.

WhatsApp does stress that their practices, with the updated policy, won’t change, and that users’ messages continue to be safe and secure and unreadable to anyone other than the user themselves and the recipient(s) of a message, due to WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption software. Therefore, WhatsApp and Facebook cannot see or acquire data from your chat logs or your calls. So, yes, customers who assumed this was going on were half-right, in that there is a non-consensual element to it. However, it’s not quite smoke-and-mirrors, but, rather, a more explicit avoidance of the issue, a sneak attack.

Distrust of Facebook

The response from WhatsApp has been to affirm that nothing has changed, but since this reveal downloads of Signal, whose verification system struggled with the high number of new users, and Telegram, who gained twenty-five million new users with 27% of them coming from Europe, have skyrocketed around the globe. Signal is more secure than WhatsApp and Telegram. It stores no data and encrypts every file, ensuring there are no data-sharing practices and that security is paramount. Telegram doesn’t focus as much on security as Signal. However, it has similar features to WhatsApp, so it has a more friendly interface and experience, with the key difference that it isn’t owned by Facebook.

This last point could be the most important one: it could, simply, be that the sole reason some customers are downloading these other apps is that WhatsApp is owned by Facebook.

Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Zuckerberg’s repeated appearances in front of Congress, customer trust in Facebook has plummeted. However, there is still growth. Just because downloads of other apps are increasing doesn’t mean that customers are leaving WhatsApp. As mentioned above, it may be that not everyone a customer needs to contact will use other apps. It’s a difficult line. When being contacted is as important as doing the contacting, priorities may shift. Could it simply be that customers demand new and important privacy and transparency policies of Facebook, rather than each other?




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