At least you won’t have your WhatsApp account suspended or deleted on February 8, as was threatened earlier. Now, WhatsApp says they will do a lot more to clear up the misinformation around how privacy and security works on WhatsApp. The new date for the new policy implementation is May 15. The new date for another controversy, then? Till now, WhatsApp has still not come clean on multiple worrying aspects of the policy, but just keeps repeating the same line over and over again—that no one can read our WhatsApp messages, that it is all end-to-end encryption and that they don’t keep a log of who is messaging or calling whom. That was never the point of the debate and the so-called misinformation. “There's been a lot of misinformation causing concern and we want to help everyone understand our principles and the facts,” is what the Facebook owned WhatsApp says.
Yet it is WhatsApp who have simply sidestepped the multiple elephants in the room, calmly walked out of the room oblivious to the questions being asked, headed straight for the beach and buried their head in the sand to drown out all the uncomfortable unpleasantness. In all the so-called attempts to counter the so-called misinformation over the past few days, WhatsApp has amplified seven points and repeated them loudly while sticking their fingers in the ears.
WhatsApp is adamant that they do not collect and insist that they are being transparent about user data. First, they say that WhatsApp can neither see your messages or hear your calls on the platform and neither can Facebook. Secondly, they insist that they do not keep a log of who the users are messaging or calling. Third, they say that WhatsApp does not share your contacts with Facebook. Fourth, they insist WhatsApp cannot see your shared location and neither can Facebook (a bit more on this later). Fifth, they say WhatsApp groups remain private. Sixth, they say you can download your WhatsApp data (how this makes any sense is beyond me, but I do admit I don’t know everything. Last but not least, WhatsApp says that you can set your messages to disappear.
One of the suggestions is to use the Disappearing Messages feature in the app. Why would WhatsApp be suggesting the disappearing messages when they insist that they cannot, and neither can Facebook, read anything that I’m sending to friends or they are sending me? If all the data is secure, and chats are encrypted away from any prying eyes, that should be that? It doesn’t make sense to be suggesting both sides of the coin. If this is to save us from ourselves, then it is another matter altogether.
Under the Automatically Collected Information, says, “We collect and use precise location information from your device with your permission when you choose to use location-related features, like when you decide to share your location with your contacts or view locations nearby or locations others have shared with you. There are certain settings relating to location-related information which you can find in your device settings or the in-app settings, such as location sharing.” Isn’t this exactly contrary to what the clarification says?
How can it be both of ‘no one can see your location’ and ‘we collect and use precise location information like when you decide to share your location with your contacts’? WhatsApp says, “Even if you do not use our location-related features, we use IP addresses and other information like phone number area codes to estimate your general location (e.g., city and country). We also use your location information for diagnostics and troubleshooting purposes.”
Thought you were smart and disabled location data access on your phone? WhatsApp will still find a way. They claim it is for just diagnostics and troubleshooting. Theoretically, WhatsApp can share even this collected data with Facebook—but we don’t know if it does. Or doesn’t. And we probably never will.
Secondly, WhatsApp has said all along that they do not keep a log of a user’s calls and messages. Yet, WhatsApp gets very close. They may try to portray that such isn’t the case, but they actually do collect a lot of your usage and log information. WhatsApp may not know what you are messaging someone, but they do have a fair idea of how you are using the app. And that will likely include the most connected with contacts too. That’s how the magic of personalization is built and served.
As for the worry that thousands of WhatsApp users have is how much of the data is being shared with Facebook. WhatsApp insists that none of the contact details or your location data is shared with the parent company. But with the insistence, WhatsApp is trying to draw your attention to a Live cricket match when there is a leaking ceiling in the same room.
The WhatsApp updated terms say this is for “improving their services and your experiences using them, such as making suggestions for you (for example, of friends or group connections, or of interesting content), personalizing features and content, helping you complete purchases and transactions, and showing relevant offers and ads across the Facebook Company Products.” That, no matter what anyone may believe, can only happen if there is a close synergy between two platforms. And that means sharing data.
At no point during this whole PR disaster did WhatsApp actually try to answer the actual questions. It is not a surprise, to be honest. Data is critical to almost every platform at this time, and no one would want to give that up. Yet, when the policy that you’ve drawn up has led to such rounded criticism, blaming the users for falling for what you call misinformation, just shows the insincerity in not only clearing user doubts but also to actually take cognizance of user concerns.
WhatsApp must surely be worried by how quickly its more privacy focused rivals Telegram and Signal have gained new users as people look for alternatives to WhatsApp for good. Telegram has already clocked more than 500 million users while Signal remains the top downloaded app over the past week and a bit more, globally, on the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store. Whether Signal and Telegram are as privacy focused as they claim to be, is another matter altogether. But with their data privacy pitch, they seem to be in the right place at the right time.