According to the new privacy update, WhatsApp would share user data, including phone number, location, usage pattern, and contact list, with its parent company Facebook and its group companies such as messenger and Instagram for conversations between businesses and users.
As per TOI (1), which first reported the development, India’s government concerns about WhatsApp potential privacy violation come from several factors, including the lack of a data protection law in the country, since the Personal Data Protection Bill 2019 is not yet passed through Parliament.
According to an anonymous government source, the privacy update of WhatsApp in user agreement in the European Union is seen as lenient. However, in India, it is wide-ranging and may have terms that could potentially harm user privacy.
Several users have also advocated a mass migration to other messaging platforms like Telegram and Signal. Sentiment shifting against WhatsApp is also highlighted via app download figures.
According to Sensor Tower data, between January 6 and 10, Signal clocked up 2.3 million downloads while Telegram witnessed 1.5 million downloads and installed during the same time. Comparing it with the five days prior, between January 1 to 5, Signal’s India download surged by 9483%, while Telegram download climbed by 15%.
India is WhatsApp’s largest market globally, with more than 400 million users in terms of the user base. It recently launched its payment application, Whatsapp Pay for UPI-based payments. It is also planning to offer micro-credit, insurance, and other financial services to its users in India.
Considering the social media backlash against its policies, WhatsApp shared a tweet with clarification on January 12, 2021 (2). It emphasizes that it won’t see one’s private messages or hear their calls, and neither can Facebook.
But many users have marked that the language of the clarification does not intimate any commitment on WhatsApp’s end for not sharing the data in the future. It remains to be seen if WhatsApp can realize its ambitions in India as the public sentiment shifts against it.
WhatsApp has more than 400 million users in India, which is more than the United States’ entire population. Hence there is no wonderment that its latest privacy update has a black eye in a way that is normally only reserved for national policy decisions.
We need to clarify that WhatsApp has always shared its user data with Facebook since it was acquired in 2014 (3). However, previously, users had the option to opt-out. The latest terms regarding data sharing with Facebook remove the option and have ignited debates across the social media and the tech ecosystem.
Critics are now encouraging users and businesses to shift to other instant messaging platforms known to be more secure and claimed to have superior encryption (5).
It is also worth highlighting that WhatsApp’s recent move also ignited a pan-India discussion about data privacy and safety like never before. Security experts had been calling for search debates ages ago. It also indicates that it is now time for the Indian market to be mature enough to have this discussion.
Regardless, moving away from WhatsApp, where most Indians begin and end the day, would be a tall task given the app’s ubiquity in the country.
Privacy Test for Behemoth
Elon Musk (6), currently the second richest person globally, tweeted (7), ‘Use Signal.’ It has turned into a rallying cry as Indian techies and the startup ecosystem has joined the conversation about moving to WhatsApp rivals Signal or Telegram.
“They say the market has power. We are the largest market. Here in India, WhatsApp and Facebook are abusing their monopoly and taking millions of users’ privacy for granted. We should move on to Signal App now. It is up to us to become victims or reject such moves.”
– Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Paytm founder and CEO (8).
Notably, WhatsApp payment service Whatsapp Pay competes with Paytm in the sector even though paytm provides more than just UPI for payment.
– Rajesh Sawhney, founder of GSF and cofounder of InnerChef (9).
However, there is a discernment that it is a lot more than most users would bargain.
Signal and Telegram
The leading competitors of WhatsApp are Signal and Telegram. The one that has earned the most headlines in the past week is Signal, developed by the Signal Foundation and Signal Messenger LLC, a non-profit company.
A US-based cryptographer Moxie Marlinspike created it in 2014. He is also the current CEO of Signal Messenger and WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton. Brian Acton had quit WhatsApp in 2017 and has invested more than 50 million USD in Signal.
Most experts urge Signal, which uses a similar end to end encryption as WhatsApp because it only collects phone numbers. It does not ask for permissions to connect to any other user data diminishing user profiling opportunities. Some Signal streams, an open-source protocol rather than a single app, don’t even need users to furnish the phone number.
Another biggest rival of WhatsApp Telegram was launched by Russian brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov in 2013. Similar to Signal, Telegram also supports self-destructing messages for private chats. However, Telegram does require phone numbers and access to user location, which is a flag as per privacy experts. Moreover, Telegram only supports an end to end encryption for ‘secret chats,’ but its other cloud-based messages use encryption with the server in the middle.
However, when it comes to WhatsApp and Facebook, they collect data such as user phone numbers, photos, location, and more. They are also collecting data such as business interactions, advertising data, email addresses, and payment information.
At present, Expert opinion is divided on how far it is feasible for users to abandon an app like WhatsApp, which holds a dominant market position. The main concern here is Facebook’s ubiquitous presence across the internet and as an advertising platform. There is also certain dubiousness that the current hype may turn into all talk no action considering the massive user base and ease of use of WhatsApp.
“Nope, 300 Mn plus people on Facebook anyway, another 140 Mn plus on Instagram, The fear of ‘privacy’ is so overblown in the let’s move from WhatsApp discourse. A classic case of Twitter discourse making a thing sound bigger than it is.”
– Romit Mehta, Lightspeed India (10)
According to Vidya Shankar Sathyamurthy (11), tech policy and venture capital advisor, getting a critical mass of users to shift from a platform that works perfectly fine is easier said than done.
He added that WhatsApp is the closest people have to a WeChat, and the messaging platforms such as Telegram and Signal don’t compare with the range of heavy feature and data light services wrapped up within WhatsApp.
Moreover, with the JioMart initiative, which builds a touching base for millions of small businesses, the question remains if these businesses want to opt-out.
The larger concern with WhatsApp is beyond the immediate issues surrounding the data collection. It is about how user data across WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook would increase user profiles.
According to experts, since Facebook keeps track of device ID, even users without Facebook accounts would be subject to some forms of profiling. With the absence of comprehensive data protection law and policy that could supervise how citizen data is profiled, users have little to no control.
“There are over 50k Indian apps, including all top apps with the Facebook software development kit. They already have your information, which WhatsApp intends to share now too. Probably, apps have a lot more than what WhatsApp may share.”
– Deepak Abbot, cofounder of Indiagold, and former Paytm growth chief (12).
According to Prashant Sugathan, a legal director at the Software Freedom Law Center (13), users must be encouraged to migrate to Signal or Matrix, another popular messaging platform with end-to-end encryption. The popular choice, Telegram, may not be a safer alternative to WhatsApp. Apart from this, there may also be certain technical issues that could prevent users from relocating.
“We are seeing that this migration to more secure messaging applications is not common in people from rural areas and older people. One of the primary causes behind this is their familiarity with WhatsApp’s user interface. For areas with poor internet connectivity, WhatsApp is again a preferred choice because it has been designed to work even in the case of poor internet connectivity.”
– Prashant Sugathan.
While WhatsApp is facing its biggest debate in the country, India is still waiting to implement the PDP, personal data protection bill, set to be tabled later this month. The bill has been ideated to protect Indian citizens from data abuse that many fear from WhatsApp.
According to the PDP, companies can only use the information for constancies that are plausibly linked to the reason for which the user had to share the data in the first place. There are high chances that WhatsApp’s blanket rule to force its messaging app users to consent to have their data profiled won’t fit the legal definition.
The Cause of Antitrust
A managing partner at the technology company Techlegis, Salman Waris (14), has called it a serious concern that could constitute a competition law violation since it could lead to an abuse of WhatsApp’s dominant position in the market.
From February, it would be obligatory for all users to download the same or update the app to continue using WhatsApp, obligating forced consent.
In 2018, WhatsApp clarified its Indian data policy after concerns that the messaging app is sharing customer data related to payments with its parent company.
“Facebook doesn’t use payment information on WhatsApp for commercial purposes. It helps pass the required payment information to the bank partner and NPCI. In some instances, we may share limited data to provide customer support to you or keep payments safe and secure.”
– WhatsApp, Clarification in April 2018 (16).
According to NS Nappinai, a Supreme Court advocate and CyberSaathi founder (17), large data set linking across multiple platforms certainly jeopardize users’ information and privacy rights. It is not only about profiling and content but a heightened profiling form that is not permissible by a corporate entity. There is enough guidance on what is permissible and not from both the private judgment and the Aadhaar judgment of the apex court.
She further added that considering that it’s ‘my way or highway’ choice to users that violate their privacy and puts them at risk can be challenged as immoderate. Users are well within their right to seek redress before HC or SC to protect their privacy rights.
Experts and users are certainly unhappy with the move. They believe that WhatsApp could give users an option to opt-out of certain services instead of making it a compulsion.
“Facebook is a platform where users communicate with a larger audience, and users know that they will be exposed to public information. Whereas, in the case of WhatsApp, communication is largely one to one. Suppose users see their advertisements on Facebook that relate to their financial transactions on WhatsApp. In that case, it will feel like a breach of privacy, and it certainly seems problematic on an ethical front.”
– Deepak Abbot.
The Surveillance Business Model
It is important to highlight that WhatsApp has added over a million users since 2016, and anyone who missed that popped out the window have has their data shared with Facebook all this time.
Even though none of this has any point impacted WhatsApp features the end-to-end description. Messages, photos, and other content that uses send and receive on WhatsApp are only viewed on the smartphone and the device of the people they choose to message.
WhatsApp and Facebook itself cannot access the Communications. Moreover, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly has committed to expanding its end-to-end encryption to parallelling its different communication platforms.
But it doesn’t mean that there is no trove of other data WhatsApp can collect and share about how users are using the app. The company collects user information to operate, improve, provide, understand, support customers, and market their services.
In system, it would mean that WhatsApp is sharing a lot of internal with Facebook, including account information like users’ phone numbers, logs of how long and how often users use WhatsApp, information about how a user interacts with other users, device identifiers, and other device details such as operating system, IP address, browser details, battery health information, mobile network, app version, language, and time zone.
Moreover, transaction and payment data, location information, cookies are also all fair game to share with Facebook depending on the permission users have granted to WhatsApp in the first place.
When Facebook purchased WhatsApp in 2014, the company said the messenger platform would operate as a stand-alone product.
The gradual shift towards integration has been controversial internally and may have contributed to the departure in late 2017 and 2018 respectively of WhatsApp cofounders Brian Acton and Jan Koum. Within a few months of leaving, Acton co-founded the non-profit Signal Foundation.
A level of data sharing that some users disagree with and even fear has already been going on. Given the reality that Facebook has owned WhatsApp for the better part of the decade, the clarification seems to some like simply recocking with the inevitable.
“I don’t trust any product made by Facebook. Their business model is surveillance. Never forget that.”
-Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future (20).