Wednesday, Oct 05, 2022

WhatsApp’s New Policy: Why You Should Be Scared. Extremely Scared

WhatsApp’s privacy policy says, “Privacy and Security is in our DNA”. But the past of Facebook, its parent company, make us question its ‘DNA’.

Representational image.

Is data really ‘the new oil’? Well, not quite. While it is true that data fuels the digital economy, just like oil fueled the industrial economy, there are stark differences between the two.

For one, getting access to the oil reserves of a sovereign nation would probably involve an act of war.  Whereas in the case of data, most people are quite happy to trade their privacy for access to digital services which allow them to network and connect with others. Besides, the privacy and data security terms listed out by these services are usually less than transparent, and most people agree to these terms without even reading them. Second, oil is a limited natural resource, whereas technically data can be infinite.  Third, the same oil can be used only once, whereas the same data can be used at multiple places simultaneously. And as we hurtle towards an increasingly data-driven economy, it would be naïve to underestimate the power of raw data. In fact, it would not be wrong to argue that data is a far more powerful asset than oil ever could be. The implications of surrendering your privacy to market forces thus become a cause for serious concern. And these concerns become even more worrying when the entity is a social media behemoth like Facebook, which has just announced that it would use data from WhatsApp, the popular messaging service it also owns, for commercial purposes. The number of people visiting Facebook’s core products every day is more than India’s total population. Around 1.73 billion users visit at least one of Facebook’s core products, which includes Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, or Messenger, every single day.

What is wrong with so many people communicating around the world and building strong relationships? Well, it wouldn’t be wrong if all these people were not sharing reams and reams of their private and sensitive information with just one social media giant.

I finally mustered the courage to find how much data Facebook holds about me, at least whatever it allows me to find. The ‘download your information tool’ on Facebook said that it has 482 MB of data on me. It included my likes, dislikes, the apps I had logged into using Facebook, my interactions with people, photos, videos, recordings, locations of the places I checked in and much more. And this did not include my personal data which other Facebook products like WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram hold.

As per the new privacy policy released recently, WhatsApp aims at “the collection of other information like battery level, signal strength, app version, and identifiers unique to Facebook Company products such as Onavo and CrowdTangle.”

The policy document 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).”  and “If you use our Services with such third-party services or Facebook Company Products, we may receive information about you from them; for example, if you use the WhatsApp share button on a news service to share a news article with your WhatsApp contacts, groups, or broadcast lists on our Services, or if you choose to access our Services through a mobile carrier’s or device provider’s promotion of our Services. Please note that when you use third-party services or Facebook Company Products, their own terms and privacy policies will govern your use of those services and products. Content shared with business accounts could be accessible to third-party service providers as well.”

If you are still wondering why one company holding all this data about me and you should be such a big deal, let’s take a closer look.

Since 2012, when the ‘social networking service’ was launched, Facebook has filed hundreds of patent applications, to “serve the customers in a better way”.

On June 21, 2018, The New York Times published an article, “What 7 Creepy Patents Reveal About Facebook,” by Mr Sahil Chinoy who reviewed many of the patent applications filed by Facebook. The article exposed some of the most vicious intentions behind these patent applications. Inc. magazine, a New York-based business magazine,  listed the following four creepiest applications.

• A patent for using your device's front-facing camera to read your facial expressions and determine how you feel about what you see on the screen.

• A patent for using your phone's microphone to eavesdrop on you, determining which television programs you're watching and whether the ads are muted. It would also use the electrical signals emitted by your television to identify programs.

• A patent that would track your weekly routine. It might also use your phone's location in the middle of the night to try to determine where you live (or at least sleep).

• A patent that would use your posts and messages--and credit card transactions--to predict your major life events, such as a birth, marriage, graduation, or death. Advertisers particularly value knowing when such events might occur soon.

And on Dec 24, 2019, Facebook secured a patent which allows it to spy on its users through their smartphone camera, microphone or GPS and capture audio, images, video or location data that reveals what the user is watching. The company, however, has not clarified its stand on the usage of these patents.

But does that make you feel any better?

It was not the only finger pointed at Facebook. In Nov 2019, NBC News, a news division of the American broadcast television network NBC, released almost 7,000 pages of leaked documents exposing one of the darkest truths about Facebook. It included thousands of pages on the meeting summaries and emails shared between the top officials of Facebook. Here’s a few of them:

In an email from August 2012, Chris Daniels, a Facebook business development director, wrote, “Today the fundamental trade is ‘data for distribution’ whereas we want to change it to either ‘data for $’ and/or ‘$ for distribution,’’. NBC News also reported citing the leaked documents, “For example, Facebook gave Amazon extended access to user data because it was spending money on Facebook advertising and partnering with the social network on the launch of its Fire smartphone. In another case, Facebook discussed cutting off access to user data for a messaging app that had grown too popular and was viewed as a competitor, according to the documents.”

In late November 2012, in one of the continued discussions on the same issue, NBC reported that Mark Zuckerberg sent a long email to Facebook’s senior leadership team saying that Facebook shouldn’t charge developers for access to basic data feeds. However, he said that access to Facebook data should be contingent on the developers sharing all of the “social content” generated by their apps back to Facebook, something Zuckerberg calls “full reciprocity.” The existing arrangement, where developers weren’t required to share their data back with Facebook, might be “good for the world” but it’s not “good for us,” Zuckerberg wrote in the email.

The documents also showed how this strategy was termed “unethical” by some of the top leadership, while on the other hand, it gained applause from many others. Mr  Doug Purdy, Facebook’s director of product, described the CEO as a “master of leverage,” according to the documents.

The list of what hangs between ‘doing unethical’ and ‘taking leverage’ is endless for Facebook and might not be covered completely in this article. But it raises a very pertinent question that in the times of full-blown capitalism when a company claims that, “It's free and always will be", it should make us shudder instead of enticing us. (Facebook, however, quietly changed its slogan in August 2019, to "It's quick and easy"). As they say, if something is too good to be true, it probably is.