I recently had another situation when somebody encouraged me to join a Whatsapp group in order to communicate in easy and convenient manner. I thought to myself I had to refuse and propose better (from my perspective) option like Signal or convince that we still can get in touch via good old email when necessary. Why? Simply I really believe that we do not require such extra communication application, since what it does it is not only message exchange between interested parties, but also data collection and processing. What data? Various things about those parties and their online activity. Yes, I know by now it sounds a little odd and vague and that was why I only thought and I felt hesitant to say clearly and precisely what I meant at the time of being invited to the group. The problem is that in the world of people to whom Facebook and related tools are daily bread and routine, saying that I do not use/like/want that bread, sounds weird and one can be easily seen as either non-technical ignorant or not so clever conspiracy theory supporter or simply paranoid. However the truth might be different. Hence I decided to write this article to explain my stand.
Privacy not security
Privacy and security are closely connected but not the same. I would like to emphasize that in this article I am focused on privacy, not security of the communicators what is of course large and important topic as well. In other words, the latter is not my primary concern about the communicator. Actually, simplifying it, mainly thanks to end to end encryption Whatsapp deals quite well with serious cyber threats. On the opposite, when it comes to private content the application seems to be greedy and widely opened.
When you want to install Whatsapp Messenger on your phone with Android, you see that is officially served by Whatsapp LLC ( see Whatsapp Google Play page page). However it is not a mystery that mentioned was bought in 2014 by Facebook and still up to this moment its mother organisation is Meta (see Investopedia article for reference). It is dependant and definitely not open-source software. All user data is transferred over a secure connection in Whatsapp, what is surely great and makes one’s messages secure, however, the communicator does not only allows you to send and receive message, it also collects various types of data. Below you can see real screen shot snippet from WhatsApp download page. Google Play shows what data is collected:
Meta Facebook Messenger goes even further with data utilization:
When you install the application it means you consent to collect them all. You cannot exclude anything among the listed ones. Unfortunately, I doubt that everybody reads carefully all those sections regarding data safety, collection and sharing before installation, thus awareness about the scale of user’s data usage within the application is rather poor. Nevertheless, the software vendor knows approximately where user is, what has bought recently on the Internet, who is present on a one’s contact list etc.
Privacy particularly concerns famous people, artists, politics, while typical, unknown to public, John Doe does not need to care a lot about it. I have heard many times from various people the statement that sounds more or less like the following: I am straight person, I do not do anything illegal or immoral, I do not have much money, so what should I be afraid of? Well, I have no doubts, such approach seems to be reasonable. However, I encourage to look from a different perspective and more globally. The fact is that privacy itself is everybody’s right and should be respected internationally (see for instance article of 12 in Declaration of Human Rights). If one do not value it, should be aware that consenting (likely inadvertently) to share data is not only agreement to collect but to process and to analyse too. Moreover, there are many users of Whatsapp worldwide (estimated to over 2 billions see this summary for reference). Having even just a million of them reflecting in truly representative sample of statistical content to be concluded for Meta. Perhaps it would not be so significant if people were not keen on sharing more private data than they use to outside digital life?
Needless to say, Whatapp or Messenger are not the only ones privacy pickers, nowadays web pages other application etc. do it as well, nevertheless communicators are made, as their name stands, to allow merely communication. Although Whatsapp application is free of charge, it can and will make money from such collected content, including yours as well. In other words it is similar mechanism to what Meta officially did with Facebook for European people since November 2023: one can decide either pay money and use app without advertisements or do not pay and use it but provide private data that can be monetized (see cyber news article for reference). The problem is that eventually individual user will be a target market. To keep it rough or even purposely scary: all one do on the Internet now, creates and narrows their future, perspective, even knowledge. Going even further with thoughts if somebody is vulnerable or within any kind group of risk or even addiction will be teased to do things that do not necessary are relevant, healthy or simply good for them. Yes, I know one more time it sounds like a paranoia or at least exaggeration, but bear with me and have a look around. A couple of examples:
- a person likes playing computer games would be encouraged to buy another joyful position to spent more time behind the screen,
- a political party supporter would be ensured that they way of thinking is right and different views are improper or even intentionally against national interests,
- an influencer and their fans would be teased to buy fashionable clothes no matter if they truly like or need it.
…etc, one may argue if it’s a freedom, opportunity or jeopardy. I agree that point of view could vary in any matter depending on particular goals and needs. However, I see here at least a tip of external, borderless control of our habits/behaviours/thoughts, that cannot be utterly evaded whether the communicator terms and conditions, including such noticeable scale of privacy utilization, have been consented.
What to do next
One always has a choice, nobody is forced to use Whatsapp or Messenger for ages. The application can simply be uninstalled and encrypted e-mail channel could be used instead. If it is hardly possible to live without any communicator, then more personal application like Signal (Signal web page) could be an option to select. Generally, considering your own data, it is reasonable to minimize transferring of your privacy to third party whenever is possible. Thus, unless data pass is related to things one truly requires or usage of it is forced by law or any regulations, just deny it.
As usually the question is not who knows but who cares. In the same way, here when talking about privacy. However, everybody should be aware that giving personal data to a third party can lead to active usage of it and in a way that is beyond control of end user. About ten years ago in 2013, a cyber security expert Mikko Hypponen said about George Orwell’s surveillance vision (see 1984 for reference) that he was… an optimist (watch mentioned Mikko’s speach). Although it does not necessary mean that content would be used for evil only, one is no longer fully in charge of it. The advent of Artificial Intelligence heavy usage could only enhance the level of utilization for such priceless real life data, namely your private data.