WhatsApps new Privacy policy cements growing concerns of Data security

The new updates to the Whatsapp Privacy policy, have caused growing suspicions among users, many of whom have decided to leave the app.

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According to Whatsapp’s new privacy policy, it will be allowing its parent organisation, Facebook, to share information about users with partnered companies. Information such as IP addresses, battery level, phone model, profile photos, chat groups, etc will be shared with these companies. For those who make payments using Whatsapp, related information regarding money transfers can be accessed. While these companies maintain that the information is used for analytical purposes only, it is contradictory to the claims made by Facebook when it first acquired Whatsapp, i.e. that its policy is to “know as little as possible”.  After coming under fire for the update, Whatsapp released a clarification that the chats accessed will be only those of business accounts, on the front page of a number major news outlets, with privacy being secured via end to end encryption of messages.

Even on the deletion of the app, however, stored information does not necessarily get erased immediately. In the update provided by the app, it states: “Please remember that when you delete your account, it does not affect your information related to the groups you created or the information other users have relating to you, such as their copy of the messages you sent them”. With users migrating to rival apps such as Signal and Telegram with increasing speed, their information still seems to be at the hands of the app and thus by extension Facebook and its partnered companies.

The move has been justified on the grounds of ensuring efficiency and personalisation to users. Providing suggestions on the lines of friends and acquaintances, as well as showing relevant advertisements, come under the small list of pros Facebook has ensured will follow. In addition, the move is said to promote the security of users. How this will be achieved however is not elaborated upon extensively.

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The deadline (February 8th) provided by Whatsapp for those to leave if they do not accept the terms, has created what seems to be large-scale panic among many users, most significantly those of middle-aged and older age groups. Large-scale migration to apps such as Signal and Telegram have followed. The question then arises, why now? Why not in 2019 when Whatsapp groups showed up on google search for anyone to join?

Growing coverage and media investigating the sinister world of tech companies and their privacy policies, has contributed to an age where distrust towards social media is widespread. While before, no such migration to rival apps took place at such a scale, there definitely seemed to be a rising consciousness of fear among users that their data is being accessed. For the most part, however, users still remained on the app. The implications of data surveillance might have been lost on users owing to the fact that shoddy privacy policies are often framed in a way that normalises such access to such information. Personalisation and efficiency are the prime justifications. In addition, they are framed in ways so as to convince the user that they are transparent with the information that is accessed. Even in the recent privacy policy, the same tactics were used.

“WhatsApp must receive or collect some information to operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support, and market our Services, including when you install, access, or use our Services.”

“Our Services have optional features which, if used by you, require us to collect additional information to provide such features. You will be notified of such collection, as appropriate.”

The above two lines provide an illusion of transparency, where the user will be notified in case of additional information being accessed. In addition, the access to information so as to customise market services appropriately is emphasised as essential; as if it is done in the service of the user, when in fact it is simply trying to essentialise surveillance of users. In this way normalisation of accessing behavioural information of users, creates a disconnect with the implications such as a consumerist trap online, addictions to platforms, etc.

With the deadline provided by Whatsapp, and growing panic about data privacy owing to recent media related to the same, a search for new, more democratic, privacy-friendly platforms has emerged.  The Social Dilemma, a documentary released in 2020, led to widespread discussion of the ways in which various social media platforms collect data from users to target them in a strategy of personalised consumerism. Reports of many even deleting social media accounts and taking breaks from the same after watching, came out around the time of release. However, the solution given by the documentary and a large number of liberal media outlets is the search for apps built on an “ethical model” of privacy. Another solution provided is for more regulation of ads as well as increased competition among apps. Matters in legislation regarding data surveillance as well as cracking down on surveillance capitalism are given little importance.

While in India, there is no particular data protection law that disallows such a breach in the privacy of users, countries part of the EU are protected from the same, by provisions under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Under this, Whatsapp is legally bound to not share any information with Facebook and third-party companies. According to Apar Gupta, executive director of Internet Freedom Foundation (IDF), there is only very little provision for data security under the Information Technology Act, which remains “ordinarily unenforceable” unlike the implementation of security provisions in the EU where fines are imposed on Facebook for integrating data from Whatsapp.

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