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What’s up with WhatsApp?

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WhatsApp users have until Saturday 15 May to accept the Facebook chat apps’ new terms of service and privacy policy. PHOTO: Pixabay
WhatsApp users have until Saturday 15 May to accept the Facebook chat apps’ new terms of service and privacy policy. PHOTO: Pixabay

As millions of its once two-billion-strong users abandon the Facebook chat app, many of its less tech-savvy users (this reporter included) are still reeling with confusion.

While some were longingly staring at the beach from the pavement, others were up in arms at WhatsApp’s in-app notification on its new terms of service and privacy policy sent out in the first week of January. Accept our updated terms and conditions or stop using the service, the now-infamous notification read. Since then it seems WhatsApp’s assurance that the policy update would not affect the privacy of messages with friends or family and its decision to extend the “accept” cut-off date from Monday 8 February to Saturday 15 May has done little to quell the global fury it invoked.

Digital rights campaigner and author Murray Hunter believes if there’s been any confusion about WhatsApp and Facebook’s privacy policies, it’s WhatsApp and Facebook who should take the blame, not ordinary users.

Hunter explains that simply put, WhatsApp wants to update its privacy policy to be clear that there is going to be more integration between WhatsApp business accounts and Facebook. For example, when users are chatting with a WhatsApp business account, whether it’s with a local pizza place or their internet company, some of the information about those chats can be carried over to that same business on their Facebook account.

“Facebook/WhatsApp will implement these changes specifically for any chats with a WhatsApp business account – when you use your personal WhatsApp to send a message to your local pizza place, which has a WhatsApp business account, WhatsApp will consider that a business message. When you and I chat on WhatsApp using our personal accounts, it’s considered a private message,” Hunter says, adding that WhatsApp insists that the content of these messages will still be private.

Data collectionAccording to Murray, WhatsApp’s upcoming privacy changes aren’t the problem in themselves, rather people’s concerns stem from the fact that the current data collection from WhatsApp is already unacceptable.

“WhatsApp already collects way too much data about its users and has ducked and dived about how much of that information it shares with its parent company Facebook,” he says.

When Facebook first bought the app in 2014, it assured users their data would remain private and not be shared with Facebook. In 2016, WhatsApp began sharing data with Facebook by default, however, users could opt out of the data sharing. The upcoming changes remove this option to opt-out.

Murray explains while the content of WhatsApp messages is still secure and private, for years WhatsApp has been collecting lots of other data about its users: who you are, who your contacts are, what groups you are in, how you interact with other users.

“All this info together creates a very detailed picture about who you are. It’s not clear how much of this has been shared with Facebook or might be shared sometime in the future.

“A company that cares about privacy doesn’t act like this,” he says.

Is it legal?In terms of the revised policy, it appears there are different terms of service and privacy policies for users in the European countries and in non-European countries.

In a media statement released on Thursday 14 January, the South African government’s Information Regulator said it had made contact with Facebook South Africa and that it was reviewing the WhatsApp privacy policy which was revised on Monday 4 January.

“The engagements with Facebook South Africa are ongoing. The regulator will be analysing whether the terms of service and the privacy policies indeed differ and whether the privacy policy applicable to users outside Europe, which include the South African users, are in compliance with the Protection of Personal Information Act (Popia),” the statement read.

The regulator said it would engage with Facebook after the completion of the analysis. No further information has been released to date. Murray says Popia, which comes into place in July this year, could be a positive development. “But it will take more than regulation to fix the problems with big tech and privacy. For every privacy lawyer in government or a watchdog body, Facebook and WhatsApp will hire 10 lawyers,” he says.

Exploring alternativesAll of this uncertainty has led to users exploring alternative messaging platforms. Signal is one such app. The number of people using Signal has increased by 500% this month, and it’s been one of the top downloaded apps in South Africa in January.

“Signal works just like WhatsApp, and offers top encryption on all its messages, but collects almost no information about its users. It’s actually a non-profit foundation, so they’re not looking to make money off your private data,” Murray says.

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